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Mud, mud, glorious Glastonbury mud: why Laurie Penny's not working pro-Bono

Bono should find time in his busy schedule of high-profile philanthropy to pay the hefty tax bill he owes.

By the time you read this, I will be up to my navel in slurry. When I was first offered a pass to the Glastonbury Festival, I hesitated. I am not one of nature's happy campers. My idea of fun does not involve standing around in freezing sludge for four days with nowhere to plug in my laptop. It's going to be worth it, though, just for the chance to see Bono cry behind his wraparound shades.

The Guardian-reading left has a guilty conscience about Glastonbury, which is understandable, given that party-goers now pay £195 to do the song and dance of social awareness. Over the years, as the Pyramid stage has been taken over by bland, big-name acts, "Glastonbury isn't what it used to be" has become a rallying cry for certain sections of the British bourgeoisie, rather like "we're all doomed" or "you really shouldn't buy avocados from Israel". This year, however, there's a real protest going on.

Anti-cuts activists from the direct action group Art Uncut plan to disrupt U2's headline set, demanding that Bono find time in his busy schedule of high-profile philanthropy to pay the hefty tax bill they claim the band owes the Irish exchequer, which could certainly use the money.

Lurid blue hellboxes

This tiny protest has fascinated the press. It gives the lie to the Live Aid school of global justice, whereby wealth inequality is acceptable as long as the fortunate pay for the occasional fair-trade coffee or charity concert ticket; and the very wealthy can opt in or out of society as they choose. Art Uncut points out that tax avoidance (and evasion) perpetuate the very injustices that the saintly rich dabble in denouncing. It's about decency and fair play and sticking together. Which are as much part of the soul of the British left as flasks of tea, folk music and endless mud.

The endless mud is essential to the fun, for a very British understanding of the word "fun". When I last went to Glastonbury in 2007, sober and in charge of two young teenagers, it rained all weekend, turning the small Avon farm into a nightmarish collision between a messy Shoreditch warehouse rave and the Battle of the Somme.

Then, there were the portable loos. We are not going to discuss the loos, save to say that by the time I got to the end of the sodden, freezing, hour-long queue for one of those lurid blue hellboxes, there was not a hole, so much as a heap. I stumbled out after seven unforgettable seconds like one of those revivified corpses lurching out of upright coffins in that scene from The Mummy Returns, and retched emptily into the hedges for a further 20 minutes, at the end of which the prepubescent sister I was meant to be minding had wandered off to chat up a man in the falafel queue with Ian Brady eyes. This is the sort of thing the British call character-building.

The sister dragged me off for even more fun, which involved standing in a giant lake of groin-deep, ice-cold water with thousands of spaced-out teenagers listening to the Kaiser Chiefs whine about how terrified they are of the working class. Dante-esque red spotlights spun in tempo over the shrieking crowd. I had to escape.

Squeezing my way through hordes of revellers, I finally found the Left Field, the small political camp edged away from the main stages that the festival organiser, Michael Eavis, has described as the "heart" of Glastonbury. I sat down on a tree-trunk next to a filth-caked estate agent who shakily informed me that she had just had to cut her way out of her tent with a pair of nail scissors and swim to safety, after a mudbank collapsed.

Here, the ground was drier. A nice young man with dreadlocks gave us both some hot chai tea and a hug, before engaging us in a gentle debate about the nature of surplus labour. We shuffled into the acoustic tent to listen to a girl with flowers in her hair sing some offensively beautiful pop ballads.

The assembled hippies held each other quietly, refugees from the horror outside. And suddenly, I understood. Glastonbury isn't just about smoothie stands and mood music. It's a place where we remember what Britain has done best, over centuries of imperialism and bad weather.

We scrub around together in the horrible mud and try to create something fantastic enough to distract ourselves from the sanitation. Which we are not going to discuss any more.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 27 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The food issue

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The Gupta scandal: how a British PR firm came unstuck in South Africa

Bell Pottinger was accused of exploiting racial divisions to deflect attention from a business family’s troubles.

Thuli Madonsela, who helped write South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution and made her name as a fearless public protector, calls it a “reckless and dangerous dirty tricks campaign”. The journalist Max du Preez, who exposed apartheid’s death squads, describes a knife being thrust into an old wound. Jonathan Jansen, a respected voice on race relations, sees “despair and distress” cast on a fragile democracy still struggling with apartheid’s legacy.

Following reports of a campaign that allegedly exploited racial divisions to deflect attention from a business family’s troubles, South Africa – a nation admired around the globe for its ability to forgive – is not in a magnanimous mood.

One source of the public anger is familiar: the Gupta family, which has accumulated vast wealth and influence and has close relations with President Jacob Zuma. The other was until recently unknown to most South Africans: the British PR firm Bell Pottinger, which was co-founded by Margaret Thatcher’s former adviser Lord Bell (who left the company last year). On 6 July, Bell Pottinger announced that it had fired one of its partners and issued a rare apology for the work it did until April for the Guptas.

The story begins in early 2016, when the family signed a contract with Bell Pottinger, whose previous clients include the repressive governments of Egypt and Bahrain, the Pinochet Foundation and Trafigura, the commodity firm involved in a waste-dumping scandal in Côte d’Ivoire. Unverified correspondence leaked to the media suggests that President Zuma’s son, Duduzane, who is in business with the Guptas, was involved in brokering the Bell Pottinger deal, reportedly worth £100,000 a month, to help defend the family brand.

The brothers Ajay, Atul and Rajesh Gupta arrived in South Africa from India when apartheid ended in the early 1990s and started building a business empire. They operated inconspicuously until 2013, when stories about how their private wedding guests were allowed to land at an air force base revealed their deep political connections.

Since then, the scandals have multiplied, with the brothers accused of directing Zuma’s decisions for their own benefit. The family has always denied wrongdoing, but the evidence against it includes a claim by the former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas that the Guptas offered him the top job in the ministry, which he declined. By last year, the family’s reputation was so stained that South Africa’s four major banks closed accounts connected to it. By the time the Guptas engaged Bell Pottinger to handle their public relations, they were under heavy media scrutiny.

A large email leak in May from inside the Gupta empire enabled the South African media to expose the nature of the family’s alleged efforts to distract attention from its businesses and dealings with the state, which, among other things, reportedly involved the targeting of journalists, rent-a-crowd protests and the “capturing” of political leaders. Twitter users, the emails suggest, were paid to troll journalists or spread propaganda; digital bots were used to amplify fake stories; Wikipedia pages were allegedly altered. The website WMC Leaks was set up and proceeded to smear some of South Africa’s top editors. (The allegations against Bell Pottinger are limited to its communications work.)

Meanwhile, journalists were also subjected to sexual slurs, or had their homes vandalised. “I have never in my life encountered a situation where I have clearly been surveilled and then accused of cheating on my wife by faceless people,” says Peter Bruce, a columnist and former editor of Business Day, a leading broadsheet.

Central to the campaign was the promotion of the idea of “white monopoly capital” – that white-owned business is the true enemy standing in the way of South Africa’s progress. The term was spread online and used in political speeches and in media outlets linked with the Guptas. Critics of the family and Zuma were accused of colluding with or being in the pocket of wealthy whites.

“Running a campaign that stokes racial tensions and the anger of the poor and others who feel the bite of poverty and inequality was bound to and did exacerbate racial polarisation,” says Madonsela.

Jonathan Jansen, the former vice-chancellor at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, says that Bell Pottinger should donate the money it earned from the Guptas to civil society organisations in South Africa. He accuses the company of having “played the colluding role of the neo-colonial paymaster with a stunning lack of self-reflection”.

After the emails were leaked, South Africans sent thousands of tweets to Bell Pottinger, forcing the firm to make its Twitter account private. In April, the company finally parted ways with the Guptas, and this month the Bell Pottinger chief executive, James Henderson, felt compelled to issue an “unequivocal and absolute” apology to anyone impacted by the “economic emancipation” campaign on social media.

“Much of what has been alleged about our work is, we believe, not true. But enough of it is to be of deep concern,” said Henderson.

Bell Pottinger has hired the law firm Herbert Smith Freehills to investigate its work with the Guptas and says that it will publish the findings. Besides firing the lead partner on the Gupta project, Bell Pottinger also suspended three other employees. The UK’s Public Relations and Communications Association is conducting a separate investigation.

In his statement, Henderson admitted that the social media campaign was “inappropriate and offensive”. “For it to be done in South Africa, a country which has become an international beacon of hope… is a matter of profound regret… These activities should never have been undertaken.”

This has not quelled the anger in South Africa, where there are growing calls for Bell Pottinger to appear before the country’s parliament and for criminal prosecutions.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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