Bell Pottinger targeted campaigner on Wikipedia

Rainforest destruction, Sarawak rainforest. Photo: Angus Stickler.

Staff at Bell Pottinger targeted the Wikipedia entry of Gordon Brown’s sister-in-law, Clare Rewcastle Brown, an environmental campaigner.

Ms Rewcastle Brown, who campaigns against the destruction of tropical rainforests, has been heavily critical of the state government of Sarawak in Malaysia and particularly its chief minister Abdul Taib Mahmud.

A writer on Wikipedia working under the user name, ‘Biggleswiki’, which Bell Pottinger has admitted was used by its staff, amended Ms Rewcastle Brown’s entry to include criticisms of Radio Free Sarawak, which she runs. The same user has made positive amendments to the chief minister’s Wikipedia entry.

The changes were amongst hundreds carried out by representatives of Bell Pottinger which are now being investigated by Wikipedia. There is no suggestion that those people who had their Wikipedia entries altered by Bell Pottinger knew about the changes.

The changes include:

* Addition of material relating to South African arms manufacturer the Paramount Group and its head, Ivor Ichikowitz. When other users tried to put up warnings that the article was being altered for promotional purposes, Biggleswiki removed them. Many edits relate to the ‘Marauder’, an armoured vehicle manufactured by the Paramount Group, which is being sold to Azerbaijan – a country that is currently subject to a European arms embargo. Paramount is a client of Bell Pottinger, which recently arranged for the Marauder to be showcased on the BBC show Top Gear. Top Gear’s Wikipedia entry was also altered in a minor way by the firm. No one from Paramount was available to comment.

* Edited material relating to the arrest by appointment last year of Victor Dahdaleh, who was accused of attempting to bribe Aluminium Bahrain, a state-owned metals company – charges which he is vigorously contesting. Mr Dahdaleh did not respond to a request for comment. He is currently on police bail.

* Removal of a reference to a client’s university drugs conviction, which was replaced with a reference to a recent interview.

The Wikipedia entry for Rupiah Banda, the former President of Zambia, has also been amended by another username identified by Wikipedia as being associated with Bell Pottinger, ‘Smythej’. The amendment said: ‘It is widely acknowledged that Banda stepped down with good grace. In conceding defeat he was not bitter and wished his successor well.’ Bell Pottinger acted for Mr Banda in the 2011 general elections in which he was defeated, as well as in the election that brought him to power.

I am astonished at the ethical blindness of Bell Pottinger’s reaction. That their strongest true response is they didn’t break the law tells a lot about their view of the world, I’m afraid.
Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia

Other entries changed by accounts associated with Bell Pottinger include those of London-based Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, the Central Bank of Sri Lanka and at least two large financial firms.

Dirty tricks
Ms Rewcastle Brown told the Bureau: ‘I have been aware of Bell Pottinger’s interest in me for some while.’ She called on the firm to ‘put their name to these dirty tricks and show the rest of the world who they are prepared to work for, not hide behind fake names on Wikipedia.’

Wikipedia has now locked down 10 user accounts that it believes are associated with computers owned by Bell Pottinger, pending an investigation by the website’s founder Jimmy Wales.

Mr Wales told the Independent, which has published the Bureau’s investigation: ‘I am astonished at the ethical blindness of Bell Pottinger’s reaction. That their strongest true response is they didn’t break the law tells a lot about their view of the world, I’m afraid.

‘The company committed the cardinal sin of a PR and lobbying company of having their own bad behaviour bring bad headlines to their clients, [and] did so in a fashion that brought no corresponding benefits.’

Mr Wales later tweeted: ‘Just spoke with Lord Bell. He agreed to let me give his staff a speech on ethical editing of Wikipedia. Seems prepared to apologise.’

When approached by the Bureau, several companies denied having ever employed Bell Pottinger to manage their reputations, but did reveal that they had signed deals with other subsidaries owned by its parent company Chime Communications.

Just spoke with Lord Bell. He agreed to let me give his staff a speech on ethical editing of Wikipedia. Seems prepared to apologise.
Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia

Moletest, a company that offers skin cancer screening online, told the Bureau that it had hired De Facto Communications, a specialist in public relations and marketing for the healthcare and life sciences industries. Joe Ferreira said that the company had been briefed to manage both Moletest’s online and offline public relations. De Facto is owned by Chime.

Standard Life, the pensions and insurance group, had its Wikipedia presence edited more than a dozen times between November and December 2010. Barry Cameron, head of media at Standard Life, said it had hired Team Spirit, an advertising and marketing company at Chime, and that the brief had specifically included maintaining the company’s Wikipedia profile.

Edits were also made to the online profile of Viscount Weymouth, a businessman and peer, adding in information about his business interests. A spokesman for Longleat Enterprises, of which Viscount Weymouth is the chairman, said that his company had never employed Bell Pottinger to manage its reputation. However he did confirm that Viscount Weymouth has received advice from Bell Pottinger on an ‘ad hoc’ basis.

Internal review
Lord Bell, chairman of Chime Communications, the owner of Bell Pottinger, said an internal review had been launched. On Wednesday the company admitted it had used a number of accounts to make changes and add information to Wikipedia pages.

‘I can’t see any bad headlines for our clients,’ he told the BBC. ‘You won’t find anybody, including journalists, who doesn’t do exactly the same thing.’

He stressed that when companies had requested Bell Pottinger post untrue statements onto the site it had flatly refused – citing Wikipedia’s guidelines.

‘We are having our own conversations with Wikipedia, and we are also conducting our own review to establish the facts,’ he said.