The shadowy dictatorship and the lobbyists with the 'dark arts' to help them
The Bell Pottinger investigation shone a light on what lobbyists were prepared to offer their clients behind closed doors
As potential clients go, the brash expat British businessman and his Uzbek colleague could not have been less sympathetic characters.
They were, they said, trusted representatives of the “Azimov Group”, an agent for the central Asian government of Uzbekistan – a dictatorship responsible for killings, human rights violations and child labour – and also representing its cotton industry, which wanted to sell to the West.
Who better to help them than a selection of Britain’s lobbyists?
They needed top level help to get EU import bans lifted, they said, and made it clear that they had a wider agenda: to clean up Uzbekistan’s brutal image.
So how could Britain’s lobbyists help them and the regime for which they were proxies?
Over hours of meetings, the “Azimov” representatives (or, as they are now known, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism) secretly recorded executives of different lobbying companies revealing the tricks of their trade.
And it was the firm Bell Pottinger, run by Margaret Thatcher’s former Downing Street aide Lord Bell, whose executives went furthest in their offers to help the Uzbeks.
When the exposé was published in The Independent over a week last December it shone a bright light on international lobbying in London – a city which had become famous as the image-laundering capital of the world.
The Bureau had decided to investigate Bell Pottinger (and nine other companies) after being tipped off about the extent of its work for unsavoury foreign regimes.
It was also struck by the comments of David Cameron – when in opposition – who warned that lobbying was "the next big scandal waiting to happen" and that it had “tainted our politics for too long”.
In political circles, Bell Pottinger was known for its close links to the Conservatives. Founded by Tim Bell, it employed a number of former senior party members with close connections to the Government’s high command.
And during the Bureau’s meetings with senior executives, Bell Pottinger was not shy in boasting about those connections and how they could be put to use to help the fictional Uzbeks.
During two undercover meetings in June and July 2011 at its Chancery Lane offices, the 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 reforms in place if it were to improve its image but stressed that was not an immediate barrier to taking on the job of representing the regime.
They talked openly about the work the firm had done with other regimes with questionable human rights records including Sri Lanka and Belarus, and how they could navigate the corridors of power for clients.
Tim Collins, managing director of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, told the reporters he had worked with both Mr Cameron and George Osborne in the Conservative Research Department – and could get easy access to Downing Street.
"I've been working with people like Steve Hilton [Cameron’s then-adviser], David Cameron, George Osborne for 20 years-plus. There is not a problem getting the messages through," he boasted.
His colleague David Wilson boasted that the firm was the "most powerful public affairs business in the country". Asked whether he could help organise a meeting between Mr Cameron and the Uzbek President – despite protocol dictating that such meetings are organised by the Foreign Office – he said: "We can facilitate that.”
The men also gave concrete examples of what they’d done in the past.
Mr Collins claimed to have used Bell Pottinger’s influence on behalf of the engineering firm Dyson to get Mr Cameron to complain about copyright infringement to the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao during a state visit in June 2011.
"We were rung up at 2.30 on a Friday afternoon, by one of our clients, Dyson," Mr Collins explained. "He said 'We've got a huge issue. A lot of our products are being ripped off in China.' On the Saturday David Cameron raised it with the Chinese Prime Minister."
He added: "He [Cameron] was doing it because we asked him to do it." Downing Street categorically denied the claim.
The men also talked boastfully about the “dark arts” they used to manage the online reputations of their clients.
Mr Wilson mentioned a team that could "sort" Wikipedia.
"We've got all sorts of dark arts," added Mr Collins. "I told him [David Wilson] he couldn't put them in the written presentation because it's embarrassing if it gets out."
The firm cited past examples of its work, including manipulating Google rankings for an East African money transfer company called Dahabshiil. Later investigations by the Bureau and The Independent revealed the extent of the online manipulation – after which a new code of conduct for the PR industry has been established.
And Mr Wilson said cryptically of the firm’s work for the government of Belarus, which has been responsible for well-documented human rights abuses: "We were being funded by a – shall we say – a rich benefactor who had key interests in Belarus… In our work for Belarus, nobody knows who paid us but Belarus. As far as they were aware we were working on behalf of the government." Lord Bell afterwards said Mr Wilson was wrong: "What David Wilson said was not true, I have no idea why he said it. All invoices were sent to the Belarus government and all payments were received from the Belarus government.”
The investigation shone a light on a side of lobbying that had not been exposed before: what companies like Bell Pottinger were prepared to offer their clients behind closed doors.
In the short-term at least, the exposé taught a salient lesson to others in the profession who might have been tempted to fight so hard to win contracts in hard times.
“We just thought thank God it wasn’t us – because it could have been,” said one senior lobbyist in the aftermath.
It also led to renewed calls for a robust and complete register of lobbying.
This would include who the lobbyist is; who they work for; the area of policy they are hoping to influence; and which government department or agency they are trying to influence.
A recent Parliamentary Select Committee investigation into lobbying, which quoted the Bell Pottinger exposé, also called for politicians to register their meetings with lobbyists – be they inside an office, a restaurant or a drinks reception – in which clients' interests are raised.
The current system, where a meeting is merely declared as a “general discussion”, is not acceptable they said.
For certain, there is still a long way to go. The system is not yet reformed.
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