The Sting: The fake 'Azimov Group' meets Bell Pottinger

 

Britain is gaining a reputation as an international centre of image laundering, with the lack of regulation meaning that PR companies can represent the most repressive regimes without public scrutiny.

In the US lobbyists working for foreign governments have to publicly disclose their client contracts and state when and why they've been in contact with politicians and the media. In the UK, there's no such obligation, and lobbying firms have vociferously opposed government plans to change this.

Four years ago, the US investigative journalist Ken Silverstein approached Washington lobbyists posing as an agent for the authoritarian government of Turkmenistan. He exposed how the firms vied for the right to remake the dictatorship's image, promising access to members of Congress and positive media coverage.

The Bureau felt a similar operation in the UK would be equally revealing, and would demonstrate the need for a statutory register. To this end reporters from the Bureau posed as clients from a country bordering Turkmenistan and just as unsavoury: Uzbekistan.

The Bureau set up a fictional organisation: the "Azimov Group", described as a team of British and eastern European investors, with close links to the Uzbekistan government, concerned with exporting cotton textiles. It set up a website, which listed a London office address, mobile number and email address.

Uzbekistan's cotton industry is plagued with allegations of using forced labour, including child labour, during harvest, and is the subject of an international boycott over these allegations.

Bell Pottinger is one of the largest multinational PR firms in London, and has represented clients such as Belarus, Sri Lanka and Bahrain.

Two Bureau journalists wrote to the firm posing as members of the Azimov Group. They claimed to have been appointed to promote good relations between the government of Uzbekistan and the UK. The letter stated that the country was committed to reform.

Bell Pottinger's chief executive, Paul Bell, replied that the firm "would be delighted to talk to you about how we might best support your enterprise".

During two meetings that were secretly recorded in June and July 2011, Bureau journalists talked with Tim Collins, chairman of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, David Wilson, chairman of Bell Pottinger Public Relations, and Sir David Richmond, who works for the firm's "strategic communications and geopolitical specialist" arm, Bell Pottinger Sans Frontières. See The Transcript for edited extracts of the conversations which took place.

Tim Collins

As Bell Pottinger's own website puts it: "Tim Collins has been at the heart of the worlds of Westminster, Whitehall and the media since the mid-1980s." He was a speechwriter for Margaret Thatcher, press secretary for John Major and a Conservative MP for eight years, including five spent in the Shadow Cabinet under three Conservative leaders. He knows all the main players in "project Cameron", having first worked with the Prime Minister at the Conservative Research Department in 1988.

Sir David Richmond

A key player in Bell Pottinger's international division, Sir David, a former Foreign Office intelligence and security chief, helps clients who deal with the UN and EU and specialises in the Middle East. With reporters posing as representatives of repressive Uzbekistan, he said that improvements needed to be made before the reputation-burnishing began. He added: "It doesn't matter so much the slowness of the process, though it shouldn't be glacial."

David Wilson

As chairman of Bell Pottinger Public Relations, David Wilson is the frontman for the company's high-profile clients, most recently Rebekah Brooks when she left News International. Before joining the company he was head of communications for Pfizer UK, one of the world's biggest pharmaceutical companies, and before that head of news at British Airways. He has written about the importance of "trust" as the "hidden asset on a balance sheet" and urges companies to make it central to their strategy. "Expectations of good corporate behaviour have been ramped up as empowered consumers and communities have changed the very nature of leadership," he said last month.

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


* The Sting: the fake 'Azimov 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
 

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
New Articles
tvDownton Abbey Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
art
News
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Life and Style
fashion
Latest stories from i100
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

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all