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.

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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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