Bell Pottinger PR Disaster: Lobbying Firm Caught On Camera Boasting Of Dark Arts And Cameron Access (Transcript)
THE wonderfully named Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that it once set up meetings with Bell Pottinger, the big PR firm. The Bureau set up as a client from Uzbekistan. The fake Azimov Group was a bunch of British and eastern European investors with ties to the Uzbekistan government.
Two meetings took place in June and July 2011. The reporters met with Tim Collins, managing director of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, David Wilson, chairman of Bell Pottinger Public Relations, and former diplomat Sir David Richmond, who works for the firm’s “strategic communications and geopolitical” specialist arm, Bell Pottinger Sans Frontières.
The shadow Cabinet Office minister, Jon Trickett, says:
“We have been calling on the government to implement a statutory register of lobbyists. We need reform to ensure that there is no question of the rich and powerful buying access to the prime minister and his advisers.”
A Downing Street spokesman replies:
“Bell Pottinger nor any other lobbying firm has any say or influence over government policy.”
Tim Collins: “I’m Tim Collins. I was in the Conservative research department with David Cameron and George Osborne, I was later press secretary to John Major, director of communications for the Conservative Party. Then I went into Parliament, and I was in the Shadow Cabinet under two or three leaders, again with David Cameron and George Osborne, and I run the public-affairs side of the Bell Pottinger business… I’ve been working with people like Steve Hilton, David Cameron, George Osborne, for 20 years-plus.
“Edward Llewellyn, who’s the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, was my deputy in Central Office for a long time. Steve Hilton was my deputy in a different capacity. I know all these people. There is not a problem in getting the messages through to them.
“… James Arbuthnot, for example, is the chair of the Defence Select Committee. When I was an opposition whip he was a chief whip, so he and I know each other very well. Rory Stewart is a very high-profile Member of Parliament because he’s got a very strong interest in Central Asian issues; he represents the constituency that is next to mine when I was a Member of Parliament, so I know him.
“… Just as a final example just for you… I’m not saying we can always do this but just as an example of what we can sometimes do. Three weeks ago, we were rung up at 2.30 on a Friday afternoon by one of our clients, Dyson… They rang up and they said look, we’ve got a huge issue, and that is that a lot of our products are being completely ripped off in China, to the point where they’re not just completely duplicating the product… (The) Chinese government won’t take it seriously, it’s half past two on a Friday afternoon. On Saturday, the Chinese Prime Minister is coming in for a UK visit – can you please get the UK to raise it?
“… And I’m pleased to say that on the Saturday, David Cameron raised it with the Chinese Prime Minister and showed him the photos of the products. I’m not saying we can do that all the time but that is an illustration of what, if you have the right message – David Cameron, yes he was doing it for Dyson, yes he was doing it because we asked him to do it, he was doing this also because he thought this was also in the UK wider national interest. This was something where there would be a UK proper interest. But in terms of very fast turnaround and getting things done right at the top of government, if you’ve got the right message, yes, we can do it.”
David Wilson: “We had a team working in the President’s office, we wrote the President’s speech to the UN last year, which was very well received. We were writing a speech at the same time as [President Rajapaksa] was asking his foreign office to write a speech as well, and he chose to use our speech despite several attempts by the foreign office to change the tune. And it went a long way to taking the country where it needed to go. Fundamentally, though, they’ve set up something called the Peace and Reconciliation Commission, which has got one fundamental flaw in its remit in investigating what has gone on in the past, to try to bury the past, and unfortunately because that is the case, media like Channel 4 and The Times find the whole Peace and Reconciliation Commission is flawed. And it’s not flawed but it doesn’t go that extra step that it needs to go to fully embrace Western opinion or Western concern about the entire situation.
“… Some of the things we recommended weren’t taken up by the government and so we would have loved to have had a far more successful campaign. As I said to you before, we’re only as good as the collateral that we are given to work with and if a government might say it wants to change but won’t change, then sorry, that will come back and hit them. And I probably don’t need to say any more about the reputation of Sri Lanka.”
Managing reputations online
DW: “Along the wall there on the outside is a big cutting for a company called Dahabshiil, which is the biggest money-transfer business in the Horn of Africa, born and developed in Somalia. They came to us and said, can you solve my Google problem. And their problem was, while they had a very ethical business, doing things the right way and transferring 90 per cent of money going in and out of Somalia and other war-torn countries, different markets in Africa, including money for aid agencies, for the UN etc – when you looked at Google, the vast majority of the searches on the first five pages were about a former employee who was holed up in Guantanamo Bay, who had left Dahabshiil long before he was arrested. No charges had been brought against him but nonetheless he was this former Dahabshiil employee and this was the story. It took us three months, but after three months we searched down the first 10 pages of Google – you couldn’t find it within the first 10 pages.”
TC: “And where we want to get to – and this will take time, this is where David’s team are magical – is you get to the point where even if they type in ‘Uzbek child labour’ or ‘Uzbek human rights violation’, some of the first results that come up are sites talking about what you guys are doing to address and improve that, not just the critical voices saying how terrible this all is.”
REPORTER: “The President is not particularly happy with his Wikipedia entry or the Uzbek government’s Wikipedia entry. You did mention earlier that there might be ways to – would that be something that we could deal with?”
TC: “We’ve got all sorts of dark arts. I told him he couldn’t put them in the written presentation because it’s embarrassing if it gets out because he’s so good at it.”