David Cameron has predicted that the controversial lobbying industry may well cause the next scandal to affect Britain on a large scale.
The Independent discovered recently that staff from the lobby group Bell Pottinger were hoping to cut deals with the dictatorship in Uzbekistan.
Days later, the Evening Standard conducted an interview with Bell Pottinger chief Lord Bell, in which he promised to investigate the Uzbek incident, commenting:
"Every person here is searching their souls to decide whether they did something wrong or not."
Judging from this response, Lord Bell appears embarrassed by Bell Pottinger staff discussing the possibility of working with the Uzbek government, hence his promise of an investigation. Yet why the particular shame over Uzbekistan?
Lord Bell is a Conservative Peer who was previously the top PR adviser to Margaret Thatcher and
formerly a PR adviser to General Pinochet.
Bell is the founder of Chime Communications PLC. The companies of Chime Communications PLC include Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, Bell Pottinger Public Relations, and Bell Pottinger Sans Frontieres, amongst other groups with the name "Bell Pottinger".
12 years ago, a group called Bell Pottinger Consultants offered Public Relations (PR) advice to the Chilean dictator General Pinochet. Bell Pottinger Consultants was a predecessor to some of the current Bell Pottinger brands.
the Observer reported in 1999:
Bell Pottinger Consultants, said to have been paid £200,000 by the Pinochet Foundation, have set up a 'Chile reconciliation' Website.
Argentina's La Nacion also reported:
[Bell Pottinger] director, Sir Tim Bell, former PR guru of Margaret Thatcher, confirmed that he had received 320.000 dollars to cover the costs for the distribution of leaflets and videos to 50,000 opinion makers and leaders in Great Britain, Spain and Chile. "Our strategy has been to communicate with key people to counteract 23 years of Marxist propaganda," he told the Financial Times newspaper yesterday. "We believe in reconciliation, not retribution."
The question of Lord Bell's PR work with unsavoury foreign regimes, briefly raised its head in early 2011. The fashion magazine Vogue had published a fawning profile of Syria's First Lady, Asma al-Assad.
This occurred whilst her husband Bashar al-Assad, President of Syria, was overseeing the suppression of Syrian protestors, and sanctioning their deaths.
Then in April, Lord Bell told the Guardian of how he acted on behalf of Asma :
"She wanted to set up a first lady's office rather like Laura Bush and Queen Rania of Jordan. At the time she didn't want to appear in fashion magazines and she wanted to be taken seriously. She was interested in pitching for Damascus to become a city of culture and we set up an office and communications structure for her, did speech writing and set up interviews with serious media."
Judging by Lord Bell's words, it seems that Bell Pottinger had changed Asma's mind, advising her that articles in fashion magazines would be the best "way-in" for her to market her image.
One wonders then, whether it is appropriate for professional lobbyists in the UK - a free and liberal democracy - to be helping Assad's wife to promote a wholesome family image, whilst her husband brutally suppresses his own people, in the unjust and undemocratic society of Baathist Syria.
Lord Bell met with Lukashenko in Minsk in 2008. The First Post noted:
Other clients of Bell's agency, Bell Pottinger, have included former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Bell did, however, turn down Robert Mugabe.
So, Bell Pottinger will work with the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, the Lukashenko dictatorship in Belarus, the government of Bahrain, the Assad family in Syria, and Ahmadinejad's regime in Iran. Yet Bell Pottinger refuses to work with Robert Mugabe. Why is this?
In 2008, the Public Administration Committee asked Bell Pottinger Public Affairs chief Peter Bingle about his company's lobbying abroad. Then, Bingle asserted:
"We will turn down clients. We had a call from Zimbabwe asking us to advise Zimbabwe. We said, "Thank you very much but no." That would have been, I think, a very malign campaign if somebody had run it. We take every single day decisions whether what we are doing is right in the sense of whether it plays a part in the due process."
[O]ften if we get a call from an overseas client, we would talk to the Foreign Office, take a view, look at whether or not actually we would want to work for that kind of country or a particular company. In the past we have fired clients; if we had clients we were working for we did not like, we did not like what they were doing in terms of using our name, we said, "Thank you very much and goodbye."
According to Bingle, Bell Pottinger consults the Foreign Office before taking on foreign governments as clients.
If so, then this raises the question - why would the Foreign Office deem it acceptable for Bell Pottinger Sans Frontieres to work with Syria and Belarus, yet not Zimbabwe? Did the Foreign Office approve or authorise Bell Pottinger's work with Syria and Belarus?
If this was not the case, then why would Peter Bingle imply that it were so?
Why does Bell Pottinger work with Syria and Belarus, but not Zimbabwe or Uzbekistan?
These are the sort of questions that must be asked at the pending parliamentary inquiry into lobbying, which will call Bell Pottinger staff as witnesses.