A public relations firm whose senior management has close links to the Liberal Democrats said they had created an internet "attack site" for the government of Rwanda over accusations it had been involved in genocide.
Mark Pursey, head of BTP Advisers, was secretly recorded saying that the site was targeted at people who "over-criticised" over "who did what in the genocide". A 2009 report from the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative said Rwanda's "excellent public relations machinery" had succeeded in hiding "the exclusionary and repressive nature of the regime".
Mr Pursey, who was the voluntary head of the Liberal Democrats' National Media Intelligence Unit during the 2010 election, suggested his firm could create a similar site for the Uzbeks – who were in fact undercover reporters working for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Such a site, he added, could be "aggressive" in terms of putting across figures showing that things were "moving in the right direction". Also at the meeting was Edward Lord, a member of the City of London Corporation, who attended at Mr Pursey's request.
As part of its investigation into lobbying for The Independent, reporters from the BIJ posed as agents for the government of Uzbekistan and representatives of the country's cotton industry, to discover what promises British lobbying and PR firms were prepared to make when pitching to clients. Mr Pursey said his firm was working for the government of Azerbaijan, which he described as having "its own set of very complex issues" and appeared to revel in the controversial nature of his accounts. "We already work for other governments as well ... Azerbaijan, Rwanda, we also do work for the Ivory Coast – the new one, not the old one . We also do work for – just started, in fact – the Movement for Democratic Change in Zimbabwe.
"The issues of what's happening for instance in Ivory Coast is very controversial with accusations of genocide on both sides. The government of Rwanda is itself enormously controversial, it's very uncertain what their role was in the deaths that occurred around the time of the genocide."
He later added: "If I wanted an easy life I'd do PR for housing associations."
Mr Pursey suggested setting up an internet site "like an Uzbek fact-check about the industry", adding that he could also create attack sites aimed at critics. He said: "I think articles saying how marvellous everything is [is] jumping the gun because it's not true and they [people] won't accept it. So I think that things such as working through the internet, setting up things like an Uzbek fact-check about the industry, could be a resource for people online that could render better articles.
"Then a separate site, this is a similar sort of work we've done with the Rwandans, for instance. We had a very controversial issue over who did what in the genocide. So the second site being much more a kind of attack site on people who over-criticise."
Mr Pursey suggested recruiting Uzbek students to comment on articles critical of the regime. "What we would need to do is find a group of people who have an interest in this subject that would include us, that would include Uzbek students living in London ... who, when an article comes up that's wrong, could be alerted about it. We could suggest to them what they might want to say in response to an article through a post, a suggestion." He added that this could affect newspaper coverage. "Once we've started to nudge up some of the stories to become not so damning, more positive, then we can start looking at addressing issues such as going to the newspapers and saying that people are saying rather different things about this issue than they were six months ago."
Contacted by the Bureau yesterday, Mr Pursey said: "We helped create a site that outlined facts about the government of Rwanda, and most governments have them. This [sic] UN published a report that many academics and commentators agreed was extremely poorly researched yet made very alarming allegations ... its accusations towards others should be scrutinised."
On the company's work in Azerbaijan, he said: "An issue such as the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh that cost 80,000 lives and the internal displacement of over 1 million refugees is one of these very complexities, yet rarely reported. Rebuilding the lives and families of the survivors has been a massive financial and social challenge, and one that should be given the understanding and support it deserves."
Mr Lord said in a statement: "No payment or preferment of any kind was received by me, or any organisation I have involvement with, as a result of participating in the meeting, nor was any expected.
"I am not now, nor have I ever been, a partner or a non-executive director in BTP Advisers. This can be confirmed by reference to records held at Companies House. I attended the meeting as a personal favour to Mr Pursey.'"
No thanks: Firms that rejected the job
During the undercover investigation into lobbying, 10 firms were contacted. Two of these, Morris International Associates and Ogilvy, immediately refused to accept the business from the Uzbek regime, which is responsible for grave human rights abuses.
An hour-long meeting with Ann Morris, director of Morris International, where the undercover reporters tried to convince the company it should represent Uzbekistan, ended in a formal rejection.
No official response to The Independent's exposé yesterday was made by Morris International. But an account of the meeting by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reveals that it took less than 10 minutes for the firm to make it clear that they were unwilling to take on the regime as their client.
It was explained during the hour-long meeting that one ofthe requirements was online "reputational management" – to which Bell Pottinger agreed in its own meetings with the reporters. Morris International made itclear this was something theywere not prepared to engage in.
The approach to a second firm, Ogilvy PR, never turned into an actual meeting. An initial connection was made by email and subsequently followed up with a telephone call. This lasted less than two minutes and the rejection of the request was quick and clear.
The BIJ said that at no point did either of the two companies make it known that they felt a "sting" was in operation. Their rejection was based on what they were being asked to do.
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