Tim Bell was always a divisive figure, and his death has shone a new light on why. In Conservative circles, Margaret Thatcher’s favourite PR guru will be forever lauded for the seminal Labour Isn’t Working election poster that he dreamed up for the Tories in 1978. In the PR and lobbying industry, he is still seen by many as a titan of the trade. Meanwhile, journalists such as ITV political editor Robert Peston remember him as the best company, and “a pirate of the old school”.
Opponents simply point to Bell’s client list, which has included the government of Saudi Arabia, the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, and Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian president of Belarus.
Certainly, Bell was not a typical lobbyist or PR man. He started life as an advertising executive, joining Saatchi & Saatchi at its beginnings in 1970. After helping out on various Tory election campaigns, in the 1980s he had co-founded what became Bell Pottinger, a PR firm which developed a reputation for secrecy, shady clients – and excellent links to the Tories.
Bell always claimed that when assessing whether to lobby on behalf of a client, he considered the “direction of travel”. What mattered was whether they were committed to moving forward, regardless of the starting point. This meant he would only represent authoritarian regimes if they promised to reform, Bell would claim.
Since his death, allies in the lobbying industry have mounted a robust defence of Bell’s approach. “He understood that we serve our masters (and mistresses) to give them the best possible public relations as a lawyer provides the best advice and defence if required for their clients,” says one former heavyweight corporate client. “He quite rightly argued that PR people should not be in the business of making ethical or moral judgements.”
But this supposedly principled stance sits awkwardly with the damning front-page story run by the Independent in 2011, based on an undercover investigation that revealed Bell Pottinger lobbyists boasting of the “dark arts” they used to bury bad coverage, and their ability to influence the prime minister.
“I went in undercover to his PR company, pretending I wanted positive press for child labour in Uzbek’s cotton industry,” recalls Iain Overton, former editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which carried out the sting. “They said they’d represent me, that they had dark arts PR and that they’d manipulate the truth on my behalf. This was the man’s work.”
Yet regardless of his controversial client list, Bell was able to win friends and influence people in Westminster with ease. A large part of his success as a lobbyist was down to the fact he had senior Tories on speed dial, and could show them a good time. He was known for being charming, and fun. One colleague is said to have described Bell as the one man for whom dogs would cross the road to have their heads stroked. Journalists who approached Bell to discuss politics often got the same treatment. When I called his mobile a few years ago we ended up on the phone for the next half an hour as he nattered away indiscreetly.
As the bad news stories piled up, Bell’s affable nature and flamboyant charm meant that he was given an easier ride than he deserved. As recently as 2016, the Tory peer was inducted into the PR Week “hall of fame” at the magazine’s glittering annual awards ceremony. “I think that none of us wanted to ask him the really difficult questions, because there was that degree of affection for him,” concedes one senior industry figure.
The final nail in the coffin for Bell Pottinger came in 2017 when the agency was kicked out of the Public Relations and Communications Association and subsequently went into administration. This followed revelations that it campaigned for the continued “existence of economic apartheid” in South Africa, on the payroll of the billionaire Gupta family, to keep President Jacob Zuma and his family in power.
Since then, no lobbyist has tried to step into Bell’s shoes, and with good reason. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, when the Tories were in power and Bell was at the peak of his powers, the figure of the public affairs consultant was generally seen as a political fixer or an intermediary between politicians and businesses. New Labour cabinet ministers with a penchant for sparkling water at lunch were yet to arrive on the scene, and nobody like David Cameron had popped up with a pledge to shine “the light of transparency” on lobbying. As such, the restaurants of Westminster were an obvious place to do business, and dodgy clients could easily be brushed under the carpet.
These days, with politicians and lobbyists facing a far greater degree of scrutiny, that model has been consigned to the dustbin of history. Businesses are increasingly attuned to the idea of responsible capitalism, so lobbyists who want their cash cannot afford to be seen as unethical. To be successful in modern public affairs, you still need to be good company and to know your way around Westminster and Whitehall. But being affable, and able to reach the right people, is no longer enough. Lobbyists today need to be more intelligent than ever. Getting politicians to do what you want requires proper research and strong arguments, ideally backed up by rigorous economic analysis, with a clean ethical record.
For this reason, there will never be another lobbyist quite like Bell. My hunch, though, is that if Thatcher’s favourite PR guru was bursting on to the scene today, he would be clever enough to know this – and he would do things very differently.
David Singleton is head of content at WPI Strategy and a former journalist specialising in political communications.