Undercover Investigation Day 3

Wikipedia founder attacks Bell Pottinger for 'ethical blindness'

The 'dark arts'

The co-founder of Wikipedia Jimmy Wales has criticised Bell Pottinger's "ethical blindness" as the lobbying company admitted altering details of its clients' reputations online.

Bell Pottinger last night said that its digital team used a number of accounts to edit Wikipedia articles, although it stressed it had never done anything illegal.

Last night, Mr Wales told The Independent: "I am astonished at the ethical blindness of Bell Pottinger's reaction. That their strongest true response is they didn't break the law tells a lot about their view of the world, I'm afraid.

"The company committed the cardinal sin of a PR and lobbying company of having their own bad behaviour bring bad headlines to their clients, [and] did so in a fashion that brought no corresponding benefits.

He added: "There are ethical PR companies out there."

Evidence seen by The Independent and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) shows the company made hundreds of alterations to Wikipedia entries about its clients in the last year. Some of the changes added favourable comments while others removed negative content. Several Wikipedia accounts have been suspended pending an investigation by Mr Wales.

Among the changes made in the past year by a user – traced to a Bell Pottinger computer – who made the alterations under the pseudonym "Biggleswiki" were:

* Removal of the reference to the university drugs conviction of a businessman who was a client of Bell Pottinger;

* Edited material relating to the arrest of a man accused of commercial bribery;

* Editing of the entries for prostate cancer expert Professor Roger Kirby and his firm, The Prostate Centre. Both are clients of Bell Pottinger. The user added Mr Kirby into a separate page on "prostatectomy" as a notable expert, and edited the entry on the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi to include comments made by Mr Kirby about Megrahi's cancer.

* Editing the articles of both Chime Communications, parent company of Bell Pottinger, and Naked Eye Research after the former company bought 55 per cent of the latter.

In other cases, damaging allegations against clients of Bell Pottinger, which The Independent cannot publish for legal reasons, were removed from Wikipedia. The connection was first spotted by the blogger Tim Ireland, after reading the joint investigation into Bell Pottinger by the BIJ and The Independent on Tuesday. Undercover BIJ reporters, posing as agents of the Uzbek government, were told that "sorting" negative coverage and criticism on Wikipedia was a service the company could provide.

One of the first changes made by "Biggleswiki" was to add a series of paragraphs advertising the lengths that a money-transfer company Dahabshiil went to comply with international regulations. After another user complained about edits being unduly positive, Biggleswiki responded: "I am trying to expand this article with plain, referenced facts about Dahabshiil (I can easily change any references that you're uneasy with). Your sole agenda seems to be to add a 'Controversy' section filled with as yet unproved allegations."

A spokesman for Dahabshiil said: "We have never heard of Biggleswiki, and know nothing about them. We are currently trying to get to the bottom of this." The personal Wikipedia page of "Biggleswiki" has been edited several dozen times. On one occasion, the user making the changes was not logged in; as a result, the change was attributed to the IP address "109.231.203.194". An IP-lookup search revealed that the IP address in question was identified as being linked to "BELL-POTTINGER-COMMUNICATIONS-NETID7353".

The Independent also contacted The Prostate Centre. A spokeswoman confirmed it had asked Bell Pottinger several times to make changes and add information to its Wikipedia entries.

James Thomlinson, head of digital at Bell Pottinger, admitted last night to The Independent: "Biggleswiki is one of a number of accounts that the digital team have used to edit Wikipedia articles. I would like to point out that while we have worked for a number of clients like The Prostate Centre, we have never done anything illegal. We have never added something that is a lie or hasn't been published elsewhere and we have never tried to 'astroturf', ie create fake positive reviews to sell a product. If we have been asked to include things about clients that are untrue we have always said no and pointed to Wikipedia's strict guidelines.

"We have also ensured that for every change that we have made we have sought the approval of the wider Wikipedia community first."

 

 

 

The backlash: Reaction online

Bell Pottinger's executives claimed they had mastered the internet, could manipulate Google searches and whitewash Wikipedia entries on behalf of clients who paid handsomely for the services.

But since revelations about the firm's "dark arts" and their influence at the heart of government were published by The Independent, Bell Pottinger has found that its own online profile has become less flattering.

On Google, 164 stories about the recordings made by undercover journalists from the Bureau for Investigative Journalism now crown Bell Pottinger's search results page.

A large chapter on Bell Pottinger's Wikipedia page has appeared under the heading "Criticism", which refers to the investigation and contains links to new stories about it. Padraig Reidy, from the Index on Censorship, said: "The web is still a very free place, whether autocratic governments or PR people working with autocratic governments try to control it."

Charlie Cooper

Related links
* Lobbyists - full related links

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism
* thebureauinvestigates.com

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
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

Recruitment Genius: Ecommerce Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity is available to ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service / Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This world leading specialist i...

Recruitment Genius: Regional Support Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This role's responsibility also include operat...

Recruitment Genius: Field Engineer - Northern Home Counties

£27000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Their revenue and profit have g...

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy