The inexorable rise of the PR men

With firms like Bell Pottinger working for foreign governments, we must now question everything more, not less.

In December 2010, a street vendor in Tunisia called Mohamed Bouazizi burned himself alive, thereby commencing the Arab Spring. The definitive history is still to be written, but it seems clear Bouazizi’s actions struck a nerve with a population that was tired of unemployment, inflation, corruption, lack of political freedom and poor living conditions.

Hardly anyone noticed, but seven months before Bouazizi took such drastic action, an American company put out a press release about the country, which is still viewable online. The company was called Washington Media Group, and it was celebrating the fact that it had been hired to work with the Tunisian government.

John Leary, the company’s vice president, is quoted: “Tunisia is also a stable democracy where American and European businesses can thrive. This is an important message for the international community and WMG has developed a number of innovative strategies to help ensure that message resonates with the appropriate audiences.” The country is described as “An international business success story”.

As the Arab Spring developed, and various leaderships reacted with increasing brutality, so the links between them and Washington PR firms were exposed. In March 2011, it was reported that more than a third of partners at another company - Qorvis - had jumped ship. One anonymous ex-employee was quoted: "People don't want to be seen representing all these countries - you take a look at the State Department's list of human rights violators and some of our clients were on there."

It was only a matter of time before the link to the UK was made. Former staffers claimed that much of Qorvis’s work was coming to the firm because of its partnership with Bell Pottinger, the UK’s largest PR firm, set up by Lord Bell, who had previously worked as a media advisor for Margaret Thatcher. And who, according to his biographer, was once convicted for standing at his bathroom window and wanking in full view of passers-by, but that’s another story.

The sting came late in 2011, when reporters from the Bureau for Investigative Journalism posed as clients for Uzbekistan - which has expelled Human Rights Watch, allegedly boiled a religious prisoner to death, and is accused of torturing people to obtain confessions. They approached Bell Pottinger. We’d do well to remember what happened next.

According to the Bureau, the firm prepared a presentation entitled “Changing Perceptions of the Republic of Uzbekistan" outlining a "communications and media strategy” and a “public affairs programme focusing on key members of the government and influential opinion formers”.

One staffer, Tim Collins, boasted about how he’d worked for the Conservatives with David Cameron and George Osborne: “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.”  

Then he talked about Search Engine Optimisation: “And where we want to get to [...] 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.” According to the report in the Independent, Bell Pottinger did make it clear that the Uzbek government would need to put genuine reforms in place if it were to improve its image, before going on to talk about other “dark arts” that could be deployed.

Now, what might these be? Actually, the president of the Human Rights Foundation, Thor Halvorssen, had given us a pretty good idea earlier in the year. In May, Maryam al-Khawaja, a human rights protester, had taken to the stage of the Oslo Freedom Forum and spoken about her experience of government violence within the Kingdom of Bahrain.

Halvorssen later described how: “Within minutes of Maryam's speech (streamed live online) the global Bahraini PR machine went into dramatic overdrive. A tightly organized ring of Twitter accounts began to unleash hundreds of tweets accusing Maryam of being an extremist, a liar, and a servant of Iran. Simultaneously, the Oslo Freedom Forum's email account was bombarded with messages [...] arguing that Maryam al-Khawaja is an enemy of the Bahraini people and a 'traitor'."

According to Bahrainwatch, the Government of Bahrain has spent or allocated at least $32.5m for the services of eighteen different London and Washington DC based companies (including Bell Pottinger) since the start of pro-democracy protests. In that time, 79 people have been killed. Ronn Torossian, owner of 5WPR, described the spend as “a huge amount, sure to influence media coverage, and hence world opinion”.

How quickly the violence in Bahrain highlighted the circles of power and influence in modern Britain, like ripples from a stone dropped in a pond. In February 2011, Bell Pottinger put out a statement saying that Lord Astor of Hever, an undersecretary at the Ministry of Defence, had praised the national dialogue launched by the nation’s King. A Ministry of Defence official immediately denied this was the case.

Months later, it was revealed that Astor was a trustee of Atlantic Bridge, the charity that paid for Adam Werritty to travel the world alongside Liam Fox. The two men had met in - where else - Bahrain, in December 2010. To bring things full circle, Bell Pottinger was revealed to work for Michael Hintze - the hedge fund manager who was Atlantic Bridge’s major backer.

And this murky episode is but one. We’ve since learned how Bell Pottinger had made use of former diplomats to orchestrate the lifting of an EU travel ban on Belarus’ president Alexander Lukashenko, the man dubbed “Europe’s last dictator”. And how Qorvis was working for Teodoro Obiang Nguema, the leader of Equatorial Guinea, to put out cuddly press releases like this - for a man under whom “unlawful killings by security forces; government-sanctioned kidnappings; systematic torture of prisoners and detainees by security forces; life threatening conditions in prisons and detention facilities; impunity; arbitrary arrest, detention, and incommunicado detention” have all taken place.

The likes of Lord Bell, in perhaps the quickest route to Godwin’s Law yet devised, will tell you that everyone deserves representation. It’s an argument that goes back to Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, who in the early twentieth century pioneered the use of psychology in PR to help market the likes of  Procter & Gamble, Cartier and Best Foods. For Bernays, democracy required the manipulation of the mass mind by media and advertising. Good PR was necessary in democratic society – to show people the correct course of action. Needless to say, this implies a worldview that sees the PR man more enlightened than the masses. In Bernays’ case, this rather falls apart when you learn he used his skills to encourage more women to take up smoking on behalf of the American Tobacco company.

And the laissez-faire argument was rebutted late last year in a letter to the Financial Times from the Public Relations Society of America (£). As its chief said: “We believe every person or organisation has the right to have its voice heard in the global marketplace of ideas. But for PR firms to represent dictatorships that do not afford that same freedom to their own people is disingenuous towards the liberties of a democracy and to democratic societies’ reputations as marketplaces for dissenting ideas.”

Perhaps that’s why, in 2012, our attitude must be: question everything more, not less. If you think the internet has eliminated secrecy, then look at this list of Wikipedia edits said to have been carried out by Bell Pottinger. When you hear a foreign correspondent has visited Syria to see the prisons and embed himself with the government forces, remember how PR firm Brown Lloyd James arranged a profile of Syrian first lady Asma Assad in Vogue magazine in which she was called “the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies,” and had been paid $5,000 a month for that work. Read how they lurked behind the interview. Ask yourself - who’s pulling the strings this time?

And when you wonder why so few are asking questions about all this, consider the fact that a sizeable minority of Tory and Labour MPs come from lobbying, among them Priti Patel, who was at Weber Shandwick; Tracey Crouch, who worked for Westminster Strategy; and George Eustice and Charlotte Leslie - both of whom were at Portland – not to mention, of course, our prime minister. Consider also the fact that the Evening Standard is a Brown Lloyd James contract, as is the Telegraph Media Group.

Perhaps now it won’t be such a shock to hear that when, in April this year, the Public Relations Consultants’ Association rejected a complaint from The Professional Lobbying Company that Bell Pottinger had brought the industry into disrepute, it was barely remarked upon. The PR men might have their own reputations to worry about now – but from what we’ve seen, they’ll manage them – either through influence, or darker arts.

 

Bahraini protestors clash with riot police in Manema. The Government of Bahrain is said to have spent $32.5m on PR firms since pro-democracy protests began. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle