An internal investigation at Bell Pottinger has been launched and could lead to disciplinary action being taken against staff over their business pitch to undercover reporters posing as agents for a repressive regime.
Lord Bell, the co-founder of Bell Pottinger and chairman of its owner, Chime Communications, revealed that an inquiry was under way during an interview in which he admitted to being "beleaguered" by The Independent's publication of transcripts showing executives describing their links to Downing Street and their use of "dark arts" to rebuild clients' reputations.
The 70-year-old elections guru for Margaret Thatcher told the Evening Standard that the findings of the internal investigation will be put before Chime's full board to decide if disciplinary charges should be brought against staff involved in the effort to secure business from journalists posing as representatives for the government of Uzbekistan, a brutal Central Asian dictatorship.
Lord Bell said: "We'll suffer limited damage. It won't last for long, but that doesn't make me complacent. Every person here is searching their souls to decide whether they did something wrong or not." He added: "Of course I regret it, I need it like a hole in the head, all this shit."
Reporters from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism recorded their conversations with three Bell Pottinger executives: Tim Collins, the former Conservative MP who is managing director of the firm's public affairs division, David Wilson, chairman of its public relations arm, and Sir David Richmond, formerly of the Foreign Office.
Lord Bell stopped short of publicly castigating any of his staff, saying only that some behaviour had been "indiscreet" in editing Wikipedia entries to remove negative content or add positive material affecting clients. "On the basis of what has been reported so far, I can see no example of people behaving improperly, though perhaps behaving indiscreetly."
Commenting on a dossier prepared by Bell Pottinger for the undercover reporters, which outlined how the company would seek to improve the image of a regime accused of human rights abuses and the widespread use of child labour, the peer said the company only undertook work with governments which had pledged programmes of reform.
Lord Bell said he was annoyed at the subterfuge used to obtain the covert recordings and has lodged a formal complaint with the Press Complaints Commission, which he said he expects to lose.
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