Lord Bell, the co-founder of controversial PR firm Bell Pottinger, has admitted the company will “almost certainly” fail to recover from being mired in a South African racism row but it is “nothing to do with me” - as his phone went off twice during an extraordinary Newsnight interview.
His comments come after the PR firm’s work on a campaign for Oakbay Capital, a South African company owned by the wealthy Gupta family, has been accused of stoking racial hatred by the country’s opposition, Democratic Alliance.
The firm accused of provocation over using the phrases “white monopoly capital” and “economic apartheid” on South African social media.
In the latest setback for the firm, Bell Pottinger has been expelled from the UK’s leading PR trade body for its controversial contract, the first time such a prominent member has been kicked out off the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA).
Appearing on Newsnight in the aftermath of the firm’s chief executive James Henderson quitting, Lord Bell attempted to distance himself from any association with the work in South Africa, despite admitting to leading early meetings.
The PR guru, famed for helping Margaret Thatcher to three general election victories, argued he had quit the firm in August partly because people didn’t listen to him over the Gupta work.
As he was pressed on his close association to the deal, Lord Bell’s phone went off not once but twice as he struggled to defend his position.
At the start, Wark asked if it was a “devastating day” that the “company built with your own hands” was in such dire straits. “What went wrong?”, she added.
Lord Bell replied gnomically: “I think it can best be summed up by Walter Scott: what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.”
As Wark attempted a follow-up his phone started to ring ...
Later, she asked whether Lord Bell thought he was to blame. As he attempted to suggest he was getting more criticism than others, his phone went off again.
“You are a popular man tonight, obviously,” Wark offered as he halted the second call.
The most instructive exchange was at the very end:
Wark: “Is this curtains for Bell Pottinger?”
Bell: “It is but it’s nothing to do with me.”
Wark: “The company is a busted flush?”
Bell: “I think it’s getting close to the end, you can try to rescue it but it will not be very successful.”
Wark: “You must take some responsibility?”
Bell: “This is 18 months ago, people write stuff 18 months later, journalists write stuff 18 months later, and I am supposed to react? I resigned from the company in August last year, published my resignation and I said one of the reasons I was leaving was because of the Gupta account.”
Wark: “For somebody who is such a senior figure in the industry, you ran the company, it does not strike anyone as possible that you could be innocent in all of this?”
Bell: “Well, I am sorry but I am. I do not care if you believe it or not, the fact is is that is the situation.”
The Democratic Alliance had complained to the PRCA over Bell Pottinger’s “hateful and divisive campaign to divide South Africa along the lines of race”. The campaign emphasised the power of white-owned businesses and used the #WhiteMonopolyCapital hashtag.