Caught on camera: top lobbyists boasting how they influence the PM

Special undercover investigation: Executives from Bell Pottinger reveal 'dark arts' they use to burnish reputations of countries accused of human rights violations

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 The Independent today, has taped senior executives at Bell Pottinger:

* Claiming they have used their access to Downing Street to get David Cameron to speak to the Chinese premier on behalf of one of their business clients within 24 hours of asking him to do so;

* 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;

* Suggesting that the company could manipulate Google results to "drown" out negative coverage of human rights violations and child labour;

* Revealing that Bell Pottinger has a team which "sorts" negative Wikipedia coverage of clients;

* 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.

In Uzbekistan, child labour is used in cotton fields to fulfil state quotas and the country also has a terrible human rights record: the think tank Freedom House put it on its 2011 list of the "Worst of the Worst" repressive regimes.

'I've been working with Hilton, Cameron, Osborne, for 20 years'

The Bureau contacted ten London firms. Two refused to take the business, several others did not reply, while five including Bell Pottinger appeared to be keen to work with the fictitious Uzbek representatives. Bell Pottinger quoted "£1m-plus" as a fee for carrying out the work.

Their claims – which were secretly recorded – will add to mounting concerns that an absence of regulation has made London the global centre for "reputation laundering", where lobbyists work behind the scenes on behalf of the world's most controversial regimes.

David Cameron pledged to tackle lobbying five years ago and then again last year, saying it was "the next big scandal waiting to happen" and "has tainted our politics for too long, an issue that exposes the far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money". He said he wanted to shine "the light of transparency" on lobbying so that politics "comes clean about who is buying power and influence".

During two undercover meetings in June and July 2011 at its Chancery Lane offices, senior Bell Pottinger executives 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 and outlined how it could work with the Government, Parliament and the media to do so.

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 used to be Mr Llewellyn's boss in Conservative Central Office, and had worked with Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne in the Conservative Research Department.

"I've been working with people like Steve Hilton, David Cameron, George Osborne for 20 years-plus. There is not a problem getting the messages through," he said.

His colleague David Wilson boasted 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 ambassadors – he said: "We can facilitate that".

Mr Collins later clarified that such a meeting might be an "end point" to aim for, once the country was seen to be genuinely improving its human rights record.

'David Cameron raised it with the Chinese Prime Minister'

During the undercover meeting, Bell Pottinger – whose chairman is Margaret Thatcher's former media adviser Lord (Tim) Bell – claimed to have used its influence on behalf of the engineering firm Dyson to ask 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 that, "He [Cameron] was doing it because we asked him to do it," and because the issue was in the wider national interest. In terms of very fast turnaround and getting things done right at the top of government, if you've got the right message, we can do it," he said.

Mr Collins also recommended a meeting with Daniel Finkelstein, chief leader writer at The Times – who he said was very close to Mr Cameron. "He will sit down and have lunch with just about anybody," he said. "That doesn't mean he's going to agree with them, but occasionally something out of that lunch will get dropped into a future column."

Joint events could be held with influential think tanks close to government, such as Policy Exchange, the firm suggested. Another strategy would include passing information to key academics "so that they are then blogging the right messages out there – so it's coming from an independent," said Mr Wilson.

Mr Finkelstein said last night: "I am flattered if anyone thinks I am interesting enough to have lunch with. But anyone promoting either undemocratic or anti-social policies would find me a pretty closed door and hasn't to my knowledge come knocking".

'We've got all sorts of dark arts'

Discussing techniques for managing reputations online, 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."

A presentation shown during the meeting said it could "create and maintain third-party blogs" – blogs that appeared to be independent. These would contain positive content and popular key words that would rank highly in Google searches.

The pair also explained how the firm enables government videos and articles to move to the top of internet searches, while less favourable stories can move down the rankings.

"The ambition obviously is to drown that negative content and make sure that you have positive content out there online," Mr Wilson said.

The firm cited past examples of its work, included manipulating Google rankings for an East African money transfer company called Dahabshiil. Bell Pottinger executives said they had ensured that references to a former Dahabshill employee subsequently detained in Guantanamo Bay because of alleged links to al-Qai'da disappeared from the first 10 pages of a Google search for the company.

Another defensive method cited in the meeting was the use of politicians to attack a broadcaster.

"There are a lot of people in Parliament who can't stand Channel 4 and can't stand Dispatches," Mr Collins said.

"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 [who will say:] 'Here is another instance of Channel 4 over-reaching themselves and putting out stuff they haven't properly checked'."

'Britain has this sort of moral ethic it thinks it can impose on the world'

Uzbekistan has recently expelled Human Rights Watch. The US think-tank Freedom House has said: "Uzbekistan's government continued to suppress all political opposition and restrict independent business activity in 2010. The few remaining civic activists and critical journalists in the country faced prosecution, fines, and lengthy prison terms."

In addition, Uzbekistan's cotton is the subject of an international boycott by several clothing manufacturers because the country still allegedly uses forced labour, including child labour, in its harvest.

Bureau journalists posed as members of the "Azimov Group" – a group of British and Eastern European investors concerned with exporting cotton textiles. They claimed they had been tasked by the Uzbek government with improving the country's image in the UK, and that the government would be committed to reform.

"A number of [our client] governments have had serious reputational issues," said Mr Collins.

But he also stressed a need for genuine commitment to reform. "Everything we are recommending is predicated on the agreement by the government to change," he said. "[That] justifies why a PR company is representing a country which previously people shouldn't have been talking to. Now it actually wants to change it is fully acceptable."

Another executive stressed, whilst talking about one of the firm's clients: "I wouldn't actually represent a client whom I didn't believe."

He added: "Just trying to sell the situation as it is or to say that things are changing when in reality they aren't is not going to work. Once we're clear that we've got the collateral, the proof that things are changing, then obviously we have the connections to get the message through to the right people."

'This is a £100,000-a-month campaign'

Bell Pottinger told the reporters that they had previously helped convince the EU that Belarus was committed to reform. But shortly after the EU lifted a travel ban on the Belarus President, the country went back to its old ways and the ban was eventually reinstated.

Bell Pottinger and the Belarus government stopped working together in 2009. Last week Belarus courts sentenced two men to death despite pleas for mercy and international outcry.

Changes did not need to be fast, Mr Collins said. "As long as you can see that each year is a little better than before, that's fine."

Bell Pottinger's services do not come cheap. "A million pounds plus," is what Mr Wilson quoted to do the job. "This is certainly a £100,000-a-month campaign, to make it very effective."

This would buy a media-relations campaign, online reputation management and the public-affairs team "working with you on a governmental level".

The country should stress its position as an emerging market, he suggested. "To the Western world it's a developing market so you can always have the message that: 'We are changing with the times – we are emerging, learning as a nation and growing'," he said.

He added: "Britain has this sort of moral ethic it thinks it can impose upon the world still because of our colonial background and the Commonwealth. We forget that 100 years ago we had kids working in cotton mills here."

Asked whether the firm would be prepared to work for the Azimov Group without knowing the identity of the campaign's ultimate funders, Mr Wilson said: "If the media asks us who your [our] client is, there has to be an audit trail." But a few seconds later also said: "In our work for Belarus, nobody knows who paid us."

Lord Bell was provided with details last Friday morning of the above. He responded yesterday via his lawyers, Carter Ruck, 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."

Downing Street sources said that the Dyson company's concerns had been raised with the Chinese premier, that it was a legitimate matter to raise and that they were unaware of Bell Pottinger's involvement.

Mr Dyson did not comment last night.

thebureauinvestigates.com

* Caught on camera: top lobbyists boasting how they influence the PM
* The Sting: The fake 'Asimov Group' meets Bell Pottinger
* The Transcript: 'David Cameron raised it with the Chinese Prime Minister'
* We wrote Sri Lankan President's civil war speech, say lobbyists
* Vicious dictatorship which Bell Pottinger was prepared to do business with
* Oliver Wright: Vested interests are entitled to argue their case, but it must be in the open
* Andrew Grice: Plenty of talk about cracking down on lobbying – but still there's no action
* Leading article: Evidence of a lobbying industry out of control
 

Life and Style
“What is it like being a girl?” was the question on the lips of one inquisitive Reddit user this week
News
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
beauty
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
transfers
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Sport
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
film
News
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
News
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Sport
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Sport
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
tv
Sport
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
News
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
people
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
tech
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Solutions Architect - Financial Services, SQL, Stored Procedure

£55000 - £65000 per annum + BONUS + BENEFITS: Harrington Starr: One of the mos...

Senior UNIX Engineer (UNIX, Linux, Solaris, IBM MQ Server)

£62000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior UNIX Engineer (UNIX, Linux, Solaris...

JavaScript Developer (Angular, Web Forms, HTML5, Ext JS,CSS3)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: JavaScript Dev...

BC2

£50000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice