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.
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."
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.
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