PCC rejects Bell Pottinger’s complaint against Bureau investigation

He may ‘open doors’ for his clients, but PCC closes its door on Lord Bell’s complaint.

The Press Complaints Commission has rejected a complaint against the Independent newspaper from Bell Pottinger Group, following a Bureau investigation into the lobbying company.

Bell Pottinger had complained through Carter-Ruck solicitors that a series of articles produced by the Bureau, published in the Independent last December, had been based on information obtained through subterfuge. Bell Pottinger claimed the material was not of sufficient public interest to merit the Bureau’s undercover investigation.

But the PCC agreed with the Bureau that there was a ‘broad public interest in exploring the relationship between lobbying and politics’ and that it would not have been possible to obtain details of the techniques used to represent tainted regimes through other means.

The Bureau’s editor Iain Overton welcomed the ruling: ‘During our undercover filming Bell Pottinger executives explained to us that one of the PR tools they used to attack news stories was to make an official complaint to the PCC. True to its word, Bell Pottinger went on the offensive following our exposé claiming foul.

‘Bell Pottinger’s bluster had no substance. The PCC’s final ruling exonerates our journalism and reinforces that undercover filming, when done in the public interest, has an important role to play in exposing wrongdoings.’

Related article: How the Bureau investigated Bell Pottinger

Starting out
The Bureau embarked on its investigation into Bell Pottinger after examining the extent of lobbying conducted by UK companies on behalf of foreign regimes with appalling human rights records. London, it seemed, had become famous as the image-laundering capital of the world.

We were also struck by comments made by David Cameron when in opposition, warning that lobbying was ‘the next big scandal waiting to happen’ and that had ‘tainted our politics for too long’.

The Bureau took its obligations as journalists seriously. We closely examined the area before taking any steps towards undercover filming. We gathered information about PR companies and the many regimes they represented. We spoke to human rights organisations critical of British PR companies and their involvement with unsavory governments. We spoke to senior PR executives off the record about methods used to ‘clean’ reputations and we spoke to campaigners about the lack of transparency around the PR world.

It was only after this extensive work that we decided to approach a group of companies posing as representatives of the Uzbek cotton industry, an industry that has a well-reported appalling human rights record.

The Bureau initially approached 10 companies that we felt represented troubling foreign governments and regimes. Of these, only five firms, including Bell Pottinger suggested they might be prepared to represent the Uzbek cotton industry and agreed to meet us.

Although we filmed meetings with five companies, we felt only three deserved publication. By far the most revealing meetings were those that our fictional Uzbek representatives had with Bell Pottinger executives.

As recognised by the PCC adjudication, the material gained from two meetings in June and July with these Bell Pottinger executives ‘provided significant insight into the means employed by lobbyists to assist such clients [brutal foreign regimes], including the network of political contacts that would assist this process.’

In the meetings senior executives of Bell Pottinger showed few signs of being deterred by the industry’s dire reputation. And if they were in any doubt about the levels of alleged human rights abuses, our fictional Uzbek representatives were careful to make them fully aware that they would be signing up a client with whose dire reputation was probably deserved.

While the Bell Pottinger executives made it clear that the Uzbek government would need to put reforms in place if it were to improve its image, they stressed that was not an immediate barrier to taking on the job of representing the regime.

They talked openly about the work the firm had done with other regimes including Sri Lanka and Belarus and explained how they could build a positive campaign and work behind the scenes in the corridors of power.

Read the highlights from the Bureau’s undercover meetings with Bell Pottinger

Tim Collins, managing director of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, boasted about his access to Downing Street. ‘I’ve been working with people like Steve Hilton [Cameron’s former advisor], David Cameron, George Osborne for 20 years-plus. There is not a problem getting the messages through’.

They spoke about how they had persuaded David Cameron to speak to the Chinese premier on behalf of one of their business clients, Dyson. Downing Street categorically denied this.

His colleague David Wilson boasted the firm was the ‘most powerful public affairs business in the country’.

Asked whether he could help organise a meeting between Cameron and the Uzbek president – despite protocol dictating that such meetings are organised by the Foreign Office – he said: ‘We can facilitate that’.

Related article: Bell Pottinger’s links to government

When talking about the methods used they suggested the company had a host of ‘dark arts’ it could draw on to manage the online reputations of its clients. This included manipulating Google results to ‘drown out’ negative coverage of human rights violations and child labour. And they revealed the company had a team that could ‘sort’ negative Wikipedia entries.

The firm admitted in the meetings that it could not put any of these methods in a written presentation because ‘it’s embarrassing if it gets out’.

Related article: The Wikipedia pages changed by Bell Pottinger

The Bureau, the Independent and now the PCC believe our investigation shone a light on a side of lobbying that had not been exposed before, and added weight to calls for a robust and complete register.

This register would include who the lobbyist is, who they work for, the area of policy they are hoping to influence and which government department or agency they are trying to influence.

The Bureau’s Overton added that this was even more important in light of our findings. ‘When you consider this in light of the human rights abuses of the governments Bell Pottinger has represented (Sri Lanka, Belarus, Qatar to name just three) it reinforces the real need for a legal and public register of clients – as practiced in the US.’

Watch the video: The Bell Pottinger executives filmed