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One of Britain's largest lobbying companies has been secretly recorded boasting about its access to the heart of the Government and how it uses the "dark arts" to bury bad coverage and influence public opinion.
An undercover investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, published in i and its sister paper The Independent today, has taped senior executives at Bell Pottinger:
l Claiming they have used their access to Downing Street to get David Cameron to speak to the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, on behalf of one of their business clients within 24 hours of asking him to do so;
l Boasting about Bell Pottinger's access to the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, to Mr Cameron's chief of staff, Ed Llewellyn, and to Mr Cameron's old friend and closest No 10 adviser, Steve Hilton;
l Suggesting that the company could manipulate Google results to "drown" out negative coverage of human rights violations and child labour;
l Saying it was possible to use MPs known to be critical of investigative programmes to attack their reporting for minor errors.
Reporters from the Bureau posed as agents for the government of Uzbekistan – a brutal dictatorship responsible for killings, human rights violations and child labour – and representatives of its cotton industry in a bid to discover what promises British lobbying and public relations firms were prepared to make when pitching to clients, what techniques they use, and how much of their work is open to public scrutiny. Bell Pottinger quoted "£1m-plus" as a fee for carrying out the work.
Last year, David Cameron pledged to tackle lobbying saying it was "the next big scandal waiting to happen".
Bell Pottinger execs showed few signs of being deterred by Uzbekistan's dire reputation. They made it clear that the Uzbek government would need to put genuine reforms in place if it were to improve its image.
"We've got all sorts of dark arts," said Bell Pottinger's Tim Collins. "I told him he couldn't put them in the written presentation because it's embarrassing if it gets out."
The chairman of Bell Pottinger, Tim Bell, responded via his lawyers, attacking the Bureau. Lord Bell said: "The conduct of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism does not remotely constitute responsible journalism. It is an attempt by unethical deception to manufacture a story where none exists."
A spokeswoman for the Prime Minister said: "It is simply not true that Bell Pottinger or indeed any other lobbying company has any influence on government policy."