After my complaint about Bell Pottinger breaking the public affairs Code of Conduct was rejected, I have seen new evidence about Bell Pottinger’s possible offences.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the organisation that ran the sting operation, has written to PR Week with more details. In the interest of openness, I reprint their letter below. Should the PRCA now reopen the investigation?
Dear Mr Rogers,
Hello. I am the editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. As I am sure you recall, we carried out that story on Bell Pottinger last year with the Independent.
As your magazine has reported, the Public Relations Consultants Association cleared Bell Pottinger last week of breaching its Code of Practice, following a complaint from Mark Adams of Standup4Lobbying.
The complaint related to the Bureau’s undercover investigation into Bell Pottinger’s representation of regimes with poor human rights records.
I am writing to you as I am unsure how the PRCA reached its conclusion.
First, I was never approached for comment by the inquiry board. As our journalism was one that did not rely solely on our undercover work – and as such used other sourced evidence to stand up or knock over any exaggeration made by BP in the pitch. So there is much of what we were told by BP as prospective clients that is not public. And as such much that could have informed the PRCA’s decision. Had they approached me I would have made this available to them (with conditions).
Second, we feel that we did report sufficient evidence that shows BP breached the PRCA code.
The Code, for instance, states that political consultants must not ‘propose or undertake any action which would constitute an improper influence on organs of government, or on legislation or on the media of communication’.
It goes on to state that they ‘must not make misleading, exaggerated or extravagant claims or otherwise misrepresent the nature or extent of their access to institutions of government or to political parties or to persons in those institutions.’
But the firm’s boasts about its ability to ‘get the message across’ to the Cabinet have been well aired, most recently on Newsnight.
During our undercover meeting Bell Pottinger’s David Wilson also said he could help arrange a meeting between the Uzek president and David Cameron.
“It would need to happen via the ambassador into the government,’ he said. ‘We can facilitate that and make sure it goes into the right channels, that the right answers are already being given before the request comes through.’
Was Wilson exaggerating his ability to arrange the meeting or was he really able to pull strings to make it happen? We’ll never know, but either way – improper influence or exaggeration – the Code would appear to have been broken.
Then we have Tim Collins describing at length how the firm persuaded David Cameron to complain about Chinese rip-offs of Dyson Airblade fans to the Chinese premier within a few hours of Dyson asking Bell Pottinger to act. ‘On the Saturday David Cameron raised it with the Chinese prime minister and showed him the photos of the products,’ Collins said.
A Number 10 spokesman told the BBC this was a ‘gross exaggeration’ and that Bell Pottinger had ‘totally misrepresented’ its relationship with Downing Street.
Again it appears that the code was breached.
There were other instances of exaggeration. Amongst the MPs Collins boasted he knew was Cumbrian MP Rory Stewart. Stewart claims he’s only met Collins once.
As for the rule against improper influence on the media: how about this, again from Collins:
“There are a lot of people in Parliament who can’t stand Channel 4 and can’t stand Dispatches. So if there are any inaccuracies even if they’re fairly minor you can work with some people who have a track record of not liking Channel 4, wanting to score points against Channel 4 and say here is another instance of Channel 4 overreaching themselves and putting out stuff they haven’t properly checked.’
And here’s Wilson talking about how to head off a negative story: ‘You need statistics – you baffle people with statistics and people love statistics so you say then in 80% of the country these reforms are already in place, we are still working through the last twenty per cent, whatever the statistics might be.’
The Code also says that in making representations to government, consultants must ‘be open in disclosing the identity of their employers and must not misrepresent their interests’. But David Wilson said on camera: ‘In our work for Belarus nobody knows who pays us.’
And as for ethics… look at this dialogue that occurred between the Bureau, David Wilson and Tim Collins:
The Bureau: “The President is not particularly happy with his wikipedia entry or the Uzbek government’s wikipedia entry. You did mention earlier that there might be ways to – would that be something that we could deal with?
David Wilson: Yeah
The Bureau: Yeah. OK.
Tim Collins: We’ve got all sorts of dark arts. I told him he couldn’t put them in the written presentation because it’s embarrassing if it gets out because he’s so good at it.
Do you think that a piece about the PRCA’s ‘inquiry’ and it’s [sic] lack of engagement with the above facts is warranted?
Bureau of Investigative Journalism