Lord Bell: I'd do anything for Margaret

His magic touch was behind the Iron Lady's election wins, and now Tory leader Michael Howard is hoping that Lord Bell of Belgravia can do the same for his Conservative Party of the 21st century. Ian Burrell talks to the PR guru
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The hidden hand of Lord Bell of Belgravia, purveyor of PR advice to Rupert Murdoch, intimate of Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky, agent of Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko and longtime confidant of Baroness Thatcher, has probably left more fingerprints on modern history than any other current British media figure.

The hidden hand of Lord Bell of Belgravia, purveyor of PR advice to Rupert Murdoch, intimate of Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky, agent of Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko and longtime confidant of Baroness Thatcher, has probably left more fingerprints on modern history than any other current British media figure.

Bell is currently employed by the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq to sell the idea of democracy to the Iraqi people. He is actively engaged in shaping the political futures of Russia and Ukraine, while retaining a hotline to Conservative Party headquarters and offering what help he can to put his friend Michael Howard into Downing Street.

He enthusiastically points out that it was once said of him that "if Alastair Campbell was a spin doctor then I was the president of the Royal College of Surgeons". Bell has quoted the line before, only substituting Max Clifford for Campbell but there is an election on after all.

In the advertising industry he is a legend, one of the founders of Saatchi & Saatchi, which as international chairman he developed into the number one worldwide agency in 1981. He currently owns the highest-ranked British PR agency Bell Pottinger/Good Relations, whose clients include McDonald's and Vodafone. But to some he is a sinister figure, the behind-the-scenes architect of Margaret Thatcher's election victories of 1979, 1983 and 1987 and the propagandist who helped to crush the resistance of the striking coal miners. Bell is a man who - he admits - causes some on the political left to "make the sign of the cross" when he enters the room.

Conversation, along with politics, is one of the two great passions of his life but he rarely gives interviews, perhaps mindful of protecting his own profile.

"I've had sundry different images. I was the third brother for 15 years at Saatchi & Saatchi, the mythical, unheard-of brother who was banned from talking to the outside world, so of course I was the only person the outside world wanted to talk to. Then I was Mrs Thatcher's favourite adman. Then I was her PR guru," he says.

"I don't think I have an image," he protests, for once unconvincing. "I have an image inside my business and in the industry but I don't think I have an image outside that narrow, tiny piece of the population."

He is talking about an elite with an inordinate amount of power and influence, who - when they are in trouble or need media-related advice - pick up the phone and ring Bell. Such people as Boris Yeltsin, the Sultan of Brunei, Conrad Black and Mark Thatcher.

Bell, who was once described as "Mephistopheles to the reporter's Faust", is seen as someone who can make the story come out right (or at least the client's idea of right).

His motto is: "Perceptions are real. If you're playing to win they have to be favourable. Your ability to persuade people to listen to you, understand what you are saying, and support you will determine whether you win or lose."

Bell's power base is a top floor office looking out over swanky Mayfair, part of a modern five-storey block that houses his communications empire of 25 companies in three divisions and 650 staff, taking fee income of more than £60m a year from an elite client list of 900 names. The neighbours include the Saudi Arabian ambassador, who lives in Crewe House, the most magnificent residence in Mayfair, a Palladian mansion with immaculate lawns. Bell's favourite eulogy was one written about him by the former editor of the Daily Mail, Sir David English, under the pseudonym Peter Lewis. Bell remembers the piece described him as "so charming that dogs crossed the street to be stroked by me". In return, Bell describes English as "the much-missed and greatest editor Fleet Street ever had".

In the midst of an election campaign, Tim Bell - whose reputation for spinning is probably rivalled only by Shane Warne - is keen to be known as more than a propagandist.

"It's a very hard thing to explain but half of me dislikes being called a top spin doctor and half of me quite likes it," he says. "The half that likes it I suppose is the ego bit - it makes me into something. It's no different than saying top footballer or successful surgeon. The half that dislikes it is because the image of the spin doctor is a negative image and it's a code word for deceiver and I've always known that what works in this business is the truth."

But while he says he winces at the thought of deceit, Bell sees nothing wrong with bias, at least not when fighting a political cause. Referring to the other great British political spinmeister, he says: "Alastair Campbell is a friend of mine. I have great admiration for his success in his career. He is as passionate about Tony Blair as I am about Margaret Thatcher. I understand the sheer bias in the way that he talks about New Labour and Tony Blair because I understand the bias I display when I talk about Margaret and the Thatcherites."

That said, Bell thinks Campbell screwed up. "Do I think Alastair did a good job? No, because in the end he got between the footlights and the stage. He became the story and you are not supposed to do that."

Before having his photograph taken (he refuses to cross his arms, preferring to put his hands behind his back "like Prince Philip"), Bell takes a call from Michael Howard's chief of staff Stephen Sherbourne, one of his former employees and still a good friend. He congratulates Sherbourne on the campaign.

Putting the phone down, Bell says: "It's obviously a very good strategy. The simple truth about the election is that if three months ago I had said 'It's a close fought battle' you would have laughed at me. Now frankly it is the case. It's very close and the Labour Party is obviously extremely worried, otherwise it would not be spending every single day attacking Michael Howard, which is basically its whole campaign - to attack Michael Howard and to prove that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are great friends."

For the remainder of the campaign, he says, the Tories must stay flexible and "capture the public mood".

When asked to gauge the public mood, Bell is surprisingly frank. Rather than gushing something that chimes with the Conservative manifesto he says: "The public mood at this moment is, 'I'm bored with this, let's get on with it; I can't tell the difference between one and the other; I wish something would happen.' And a general sense of disappointment."

He draws a sporting comparison. "It's a bit like watching a goalless draw. I rather suspect most people would like a 6-1 victory and they don't really care which one gets the six. I do. I want the Conservatives to get the six but I think the general public is very diffident about it."

The malaise is largely the fault of the media, he believes. "This election campaign is a very dramatic example of a very important phenomenon that is happening in our society at the moment, which is the gap between what the media is writing about and talking about and what the public is interested in. That gap is getting wider and wider and wider."

Newspapers spend too much time studying each other to seek out the real stories, he argues. "To be competitive in today's newspaper world means running the same story as the other guy. It used to be running a different story."

And broadcast journalists are even worse, Bell asserts. "I think 24-hour news has raised the level of trivia to being apparently important because you have to have something; you can't just sit there in silence and say nothing happened today, although there are lots of days when they should say, 'I've got no news to report.' It would be rather more honest."

Bell thinks that television journalism falls short in breaking stories. "One of the things I think is wonderful about Britain is that the newspapers still lead the news. It's still the case that television looks to the newspapers for the big stories when logically it should be the other way round. "I'm not saying newspapers don't follow television because they do - but more often than not the really interesting story with substance where you gain some beneficial knowledge actually comes from the newspapers because they are better journalists. I think written journalism is better than television journalism. It's a different process and requires a different skill."

He is particularly critical of broadcast coverage of the election campaign. "It's just trivial

rubbish. Is it any wonder that nobody is very interested, if that's what they're fed? It's very sad that the whole political process has been dumbed down."

But The Times does not escape his wrath either. "The Daily Mail makes no secret of being a Conservative newspaper. The Times does not admit it is equally biased in the opposite direction," he says, before claiming to have spotted some backtracking in a recent editorial. "They have actually had to admit, having been completely anti-Conservative since Robert Thomson took it over, that they are clearly very concerned they might have got it wrong."

From an advertising perspective, Bell thinks this campaign has been a disappointment, saying: "There's no great ad - there's no great slogan."

When asked if he was flattered that Labour had last year adapted the famous Saatchi's 'Labour isn't working' slogan to 'Britain is working. Don't let the Tories wreck it again', Bell is modest enough not to take credit for a line that is widely attributed to him. "I don't write slogans," he says. "People say I wrote 'Labour isn't working' but it isn't true. It was Andrew Rutherford (the copywriter)."

Bell rates the slogan that swept Margaret Thatcher to power in 1979 as one of the two most powerful pieces of political communication of all time - the other being 'Daisy', for Lyndon Johnson's presidential campaign in 1964 (showing a young girl plucking petals as a countdown to the explosion of a nuclear bomb).

The PR chief still sees Baroness Thatcher on almost a weekly basis ("she's very well") and continues to send her bouquets when she is down.

When Mark Thatcher recently faced 15 years in a South African jail when he was accused of assisting a coup plot in Equatorial Guinea, Bell rushed to his aid. "Why? Because he's Margaret's son and I can't think of anything I wouldn't do for Mrs T."

How did the former Prime Minister cope with the ordeal? Bell says: "I think it was no more or less difficult than it would have been for any mother whose son was in those kind of difficulties. If there was an added element it was the frustration that she felt in that she could pick the phone up to people and say to them 'Excuse me this is my son, can you do me a favour' but knew that would be the wrong thing to do and that you shouldn't be able to pull in favours that way. So she was probably frustrated by knowing she couldn't do that even though she possibly could."

And how was he able to draw on his contacts and experience to help her son?

"I was giving advice to Mark in three areas. One was the media. My advice was very simple: it isn't the media that's deciding your fate; it's the judicial process in South Africa. So, ignore the media and pay attention to your lawyers."

The second piece of advice was to allow Bell to field the media calls. "I'm used to taking 38 phone calls between 5pm and 6.30pm when a story breaks on the wire service and I instinctively know how to handle it," he says.

The third area of advice concerned the long-term fallout that Mark Thatcher would suffer from the case. "There were only two stories that I was anxious to deflect," says Bell. "One was the constant desire by the media to claim that his marriage was falling apart. It's just not true. It's very hard to stop the gossip but it's important because he loves his wife and his wife loves him.

"Secondly the issue of whether he was guilty or not. I think the media just assumed he was guilty and of course he wasn't as is quite clear from the plea bargaining. He may have been guilty of bad judgement but he wasn't guilty of coup plotting. I suppose I always had an eye on what his mother might be reading, so the British press was quite important - I didn't want his mother to be reading horrific, sensationalised stories every day in the papers about her son. I mean, Margaret's not a softie - she's the Iron Lady. She can take all that stuff but you don't need it and if you've got friends in the business your friends should help you."

Thatcher struck a deal with South African prosecutors in January and was handed a £265,000 fine and a four-year suspended sentence.

Timothy John Leigh Bell, who went to a grammar school in Barnet, Hertfordshire, is now - like Baroness Thatcher - a member of Parliament's upper chamber. "Anybody who says they don't want to be a peer is a liar," he says. "It's the most exclusive and the best club in the world. It's a fantastic personal feeling of achievement to become one. It's also a terrific place. It's not as good as it was but it's still a terrific place. They haven't yet completely ruined it. They are doing their best but they haven't succeeded yet. What I like best is the peer group - they are all people who have made something of themselves. I'm absolutely flabbergasted at how many of them I know; hundreds of them are people I have known for years and years."

At the age of 62, he has fought off bowel cancer but still chain-smokes Dunhills. He looks well, though, and there is even a pink Swiss exercise ball in the corner of the office. His children, aged 14 and 16, keep him young of mind, amazing him with their ability to text and to touch-type on their computers.

Despite his own enthusiasm for politics, he is scornful of attempts to engage young voters. "I think they need to leave young people alone. There's only ever been a low turnout among young people. Why should they be interested in politics? There are so many more exciting things for them to do."

He is scornful of Bono's "so silly" attempts to politicise youth through environmental issues, although after praising Tory campaign strategist Lynton Crosby he reveals a fondness for the US rock group Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, despite their hippie background and protest lyrics. The peer fondly reminisces on a Neil Young gig in Paris: "He was so far off his head I don't think he could pronounce his name."

As a youth in the 1950s, Bell travelled by ferry to Dublin to see the American jazz pianist Stan Kenton, at a time when US musicians were banned from Britain by the Musicians' Union.

He has absolutely no plans to retire and is buoyed by Chime having reported a £7m profit in 2004 after an £11.2m loss the year before. He says he is "quite relieved" that Chime did not go through with a proposed merger last year with fellow Tory Francis Maude's Incepta PR group, which has now merged with Huntsworth.

"About two weeks after we had called off the talks, Incepta published what could only be seen as a massive profits warning," says Bell, noting that his shareholders (including advertising mogul Sir Martin Sorrell, who owns 20 per cent of Chime) would not have got value for money. Following three years of "struggle", Bell believes his business and the rest of the industry can look forward to a sustained period of growth. "The marcoms industry has a 10-year cycle or has had as long as I've been in it," he says. "Three years of famine and seven of feast."

Standing astride the worlds of advertising and PR, Bell describes himself by saying, "I'm a comms man. I'm fascinated by the way we communicate. It's the source of everything."

With that, the arch networker Lord Bell of Belgravia (the London neighbourhood where he lives in a neo-Turkish baroque residence) is back on the phone, doing some more communicating: "Yes of course. Breakfast? 8.30? At the Dorch?"

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