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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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.