Captain Moonlight's Notebook: Call Sir Tim

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IT IS not just Iraqi oil magnates who avail themselves of the services of Sir Tim Bell when things get rough. Many famous names in a publicity pickle have called Sir Tim. Then he calls everyone else, orchestrating letters to newspapers, telling other people to keep silent, promising interviews in exchange for favourable editorials, wooing, cajoling, brow-beating, teasing.

Even people who do not like him acknowledge that he is one of the most persuasive men in public relations and he knows exactly when to wait and when to strike. His forte nowadays is seemingly lost causes - 'wounded cases' his colleagues in the industry call them. These include men such as John Birt, David Mellor, Lord King when British Airways was caught playing dirty tricks, the Reichmann Brothers of Olympia & York just before Canary Wharf went under, and King Paul of Yugoslavia. In 1990 he even took up the cause of Hernan Buchi, General Pinochet's choice as his successor in Chile. Mr Buchi got 28 per cent of the vote. Other clients have been Alan Bond, the jailed Australian financier, and Ernest Saunders, the convicted Guinness fraudster.

I was perhaps the one person who telephoned him last week he did not want to talk to. He said it was because I worked for this newspaper and that it published lies. When I rang his friend, the journalist Rodney Tyler, he too turned me down, saying 'Tim would not like me talking to the Independent on Sunday because I know you will just write a critical story'. Not true, I say. Tell me about him. 'He is the most wonderful person I know. He is probably the most clever man I've ever met and he's a great friend. All round, he is what you would call a good egg,' Tyler said. Other people call him a smoothie, far too talkative, rather arrogant and vindictive. Even Australians who are used to a good patter find Bell a bit much. His 'mates' in Australians in the Media, a small band of high-flying television and newspaper executives in London, recently banned him from their get-togethers because he talked too much. He was born in Australia in 1941, came here with his parents as a boy and was educated at grammar school in Barnet, north London. In 1988 he married an Australian.

Today, all evidence of his Australian-ness has disappeared, except perhaps for his pugilism towards the press. His favourite word is vendetta. If you are not on his side you must be against him. Which, I suppose, is one reason why he and Margaret Thatcher became so close. Knowing her, he once said, 'is such a wonderful thing, that you think about it all the time'.

He flattered her, made her laugh, believed in what she believed in, he was loyal. Like all close relationships it had its ups and downs, and he was squeezed from the centre of power by Norman Tebbit and other rivals for Mrs Thatcher's ear at the 1987 election. She got him back into the parlour after 'wobbly Thursday', the week before voting when polls reported a surge in Labour support. He got his knighthood in her dissolution honours.

His colleagues describe him as a superb 'networker'. Famous names drop from his lips. 'I enjoy being stared at,' he once said. He is not a leader, more a courtier. Former colleagues say he has never had a single original idea. He is not intimidated by his clients and nurtures his reputation for going straight to the point. His clients are impressed and charmed. He can be quite a bully, though. One ex-colleague explained: 'His great skill is not so much being able to get things into newspapers and on television for his clients. It is keeping things out.'