NEWS & ANALYSIS

Kicking over the Bell Pottinger slop-buckets

William Saunderson-Meyer says on the UK PR firm's unlamented fall over the Zupta account

JAUNDICED EYE

In a previous era, night-wagons would trundle through the back alleys of the world. Their task was to empty, as tidily and discretely as possible, the slop-buckets containing the city’s accumulated urine and excrement.

Eventually, there came the introduction of water-borne sewage and the slop-bucket emptiers had to find new work. That’s when the modern public relations industry came into being.

That, metaphorically speaking, is what public relations practitioners do. They empty the slop-buckets of capitalism, as tidily and discretely as possible.

And mostly they are very good at it. With glitz and glamour, they blind and bedazzle a media that, increasingly, lacks the resources and energy to examine critically the glossy tales that they spin on behalf of their clients. With adroit sleight of hand they promote the celebrities, rather than issues, that obsess the collective public mind.

But, just occasionally, even the best of them stumble and kick over a slop-bucket, irretrievably soiling their elegant footwear with foul-smelling ordure. That’s what happened to Bell Pottinger, the British PR agency that in what must seem an impossibly short timespan, has moved from being the world’s number one agency, straight onto the scrapheap.

The kiss of death was the campaign Bell Pottinger ran on behalf Oakbay, owned by the Gupta family, controversial cronies of President Jacob Zuma. 

Mired in allegations of state capture – subverting national institutions to personal commercial benefit – they turned to Bell Pottinger.

In a country that remains a racial tinderbox, Bell Pottinger set out to deflect attention from the allegations against the Guptas by scapegoating the white community for all SA’s ills. It’s a technique that has worked well elsewhere on the continent – against the Indian community in Uganda, against whites in Zimbabwe, and against Tutsis in Rwanda – and Bell Pottinger embarked with enthusiasm upon a sinister campaign of vilification and incitement.

This was not Bell Pottinger’s first walk on the dark side. Over the years, they had built a reputation for being willing to represent anyone who could afford their eye-watering fees. While they have many good corporate citizens that they work for, their client list is also a human rights source document identifying a seedy array of killers, despots and corporate thugs.

They acted for the family foundation of Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator whose junta murdered thousands, tortured tens of thousands, and looted the nation’s wealth.

They acted for Atlaf Hussain, a Pakistani-born radical who was charged in Britain with money laundering. He had earlier departed his homeland after getting political amnesty for 31 murders and 11 attempted murders.

They acted for the Dutch oil company Trafigura, which had solved its problem of a cargo of toxic waste that no European port would allow it to offload, by dumping it on the Ivory Coast. At least 17 people died and 30,000 became very ill. Trafigura paid $198m in fines, without admitting culpability, and settled the class action instituted by the victims, with a $42m payout.

What made their campaign for the Guptas different, a step beyond everyday sleazy, was not only that it was direct interference by a foreign company in the daily politics of another independent, friendly nation. But also that the SA campaign was perhaps the first time that all the negative aspects of our modern online lives – fake news, trolling, smears, harassment and abuse – were deliberately consolidated by a supposedly reputable firm to cause maximum damage.

Thousands of fake Facebook and Twitter accounts were set up. Over a year, 220,000 fake tweets were sent out, defaming individual South Africans and threatening them with injury, rape and death.

Fortunately, it backfired spectacularly. This week the appeal committee of the British PR industry oversight body suspended Bell Pottinger’s accreditation for “at least” five years for actions that it found to be unethical and responsible for sowing racial discord. 

This week the CEO, the unctuous James Henderson, has resigned, as have other executives. Its blue chip clients, belatedly fearing reputational contagion, are bailing out. 

Lord Tim Bell, who founded Bell Pottinger almost 30 years ago but departed from it last year after warning against the “smelly” activities undertaken for the Guptas, thinks the firm is unlikely to survive. A major shareholder, who holds 27% of the firm, has simply walked away, writing off its £5m stake as irretrievable. 

There was talk of selling the firm, but more likely it will go into administration and likely bankruptcy. 

But while Bell Pottinger may sink, the major protagonists in this dirty saga will not suffer overly. The temporarily disgraced toffs, who ran the campaign and the firm, will be rehabilitated soon enough. The British upper classes are endlessly tolerant of the peccadillos of their own.

And in SA, the initiators of the campaign remain untouched and apparently untouchable. As Justice Malala points out in an angry analysis in The Guardian, “If Bell Pottinger is so sorry, why hasn’t it disclosed who briefed it? What the briefs were? How they operated with these organisations?” 

That might still happen. One reason why Bell Pottinger was routed is that South Africans are not so easily taken in. Social media fundis quickly put together the cookie trail that exposed the firm’s machinations, and social activists quickly brought political pressure to bear.

There are still questions to be asked, leads to be followed. There might be a few more slop-buckets of steaming scandal that will be upended.

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