Is the media mogul dead?

The future of a great tradition rests with Lord Bell

It’s been a bad week to be an invincible communications overlord. With WPP’s Martin Sorrell on the receiving end of the encouragingly named "shareholder spring", we’ve seen a decrease in moustache-twirling in the once engagingly despotic world of global public relations. Is there room in the brave new caring, sharing, transparent world of communications for a good old fashioned media tsar?

If there is, the mantle must be taken up by Lord Bell. The former Thatcher spin doctor and recent Paxman sparring partner has successfully negotiated a deal with Chime to buy a section of its PR businesses for a total sum of £19.6m. He spoke to industry bible PRWeek:

We’re going to run a private company and our private lives will become private again. I’m relishing the opportunity and I’m sure my colleagues are as well.

The arched eyebrow and slow, finger by finger tap on the solid ivory desk are left to one’s imagination.

The newly formed BPP Communications takes Bell Pottinger Public Relations, Chime's 60 percent stake in Pelham Bell Pottinger, Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, Bell Pottinger Sans Frontières and Bell Pottinger Middle East. This leaves Chime to operate its remaining PR businesses under the lobbying-free "Good Relations Group", headed by the disappointingly cheery current Bell Pottinger group chairman Kevin Murray. According to the Holmes Report, Chime will:

Invest the proceeds of the sale in its faster growing businesses: sports marketing, digital communications and healthcare communications.

Not exactly Citizen Kane, but with Chime’s share price climbing by 11 per cent by lunchtime on the day of the deal, clearly investors didn’t care. Easy to see why Investec make disparaging reference to "the PR distraction" in their approving comments on the deal from Chime's perspective.

The question that now must be asked is how the UK lobbying industry is going to launder its image if it wants to be seen as a valuable area of development. Every day Leveson, reading out SMS messages like a disapproving classics teacher, does further damage to the myth of the direct line – a lobbyist’s stock in trade – as a thrillingly effective magic button. As the unease caused by the Independent's sting on Bell Pottinger wears off, calls for a mandatory register of lobbyists have been forgetten, yet the industry continues to flounder. And Martin Sorrell’s other troubles have hardly been alleviated by his perceived attachments to a dodgy business.

The industry’s image is something even Bell has on his mind. He concludeds his comments to PRWeek with an upsettingly mundane revelation:

A proposed name for the holding company was Backgammon, but this was later dismissed as it sounded as if they were calling the new venture "a gamble".

Clearly there’s just no place in this world for spy novel theatrics or board game analogies any more.

The last of the moguls, Martin Sorrell. Photograph: Getty Images

Josh Lowe is a freelance journalist and communications consultant. Follow him on Twitter @jeyylowe.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn become historical investigations because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.