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.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

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