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Tuesday, December 06, 2011 

It's arrived.

You'll have probably read the following quote a dozen times already today. Lobbying, so said David Cameron, was the "next big scandal waiting to happen". To his credit, he has done absolutely nothing since he's been in government to ensure he'll be proved wrong. This is especially praiseworthy considering how his dear friend, Dr Liam Fox, was brought low in part by his former flatmate Adam Werritty's links to Harvey Boulter, who lobbied both on their unexpected sojourn to Dubai. Anyone else might have thought there was the prospect of his statement turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy; not Cameron.

The investigation by the
Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the Independent into public relations firm Bell Pottinger could not then have come at a better time. Nor could they have selected a more utterly rotten and thoroughly vile organisation than the one set-up by Margaret Thatcher's former advisor to expose. Even this though was their own fault: posing as investors in the cotton textiles trade, they said they had been tasked by Uzbekistan's government with improving the country's image. The bureau's team contacted 10 separate firms asking whether they'd be prepared to represent them, with 2 declining, 3 not replying and 5, including Bell Pottinger, deciding they could work with a regime that sends children out to work in the cotton fields and boils dissidents to death.

It isn't however much of a leap, such are the companies and governments Bell Pottinger have taken the filthy lucre from. Back in 2006 Sir Tim Bell was instrumental in the lobbying that convinced Tony Blair to demand the Serious Fraud Office drop their investigation into the Saudi al-Yamamah deal, working on behalf of BAE Systems to the great benefit of the kleptocrats and murderers in the royal family. More recently the firm has acted for the Sri Lankan government, well known for its adherence to the laws of war, as so wonderfully demonstrated during the end game of the conflict with the Tamil Tigers. Closer to home they also advised Belarus, often referred to as the last remaining dictatorship in Europe.

Clearly still proud of the work they did for the office of Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa, one of the most prominent boasts to the team posing as the "Azimov group" was that they had written his speech last year to the UN. Some might be a little queasy about ghost-writing a speech for a man alleged to have personally ordered the execution of senior Tamil Tiger leaders after they had already been captured, but not so Bell Pottinger. Equally, they were not fussed as to where the money to pay them was coming from: there were worries about an audit trail should the media become interested, but they had no idea who had paid them on the behalf of Belarus.

Apart from the ethics of working with governments who have a tendency to "disappear" their adversaries, it was equally unsurprising to note just how a PR firm closely associated with the Conservative party (and which donates to it) was apparently able to influence policy on a moment's notice. A day after a complaint from Dyson, and David Cameron was talking to the Chinese prime minister on how their products were being copied. This has since been defended aggressively by none other than Tim Bell himself, as being "in the national interest". This is doubly amusing, not only because Dyson long ago moved its manufacturing to Malaysia, but also because it shows his firm in a good light, even if it doesn't the government. Also easily achievable would be the setting up of third-party blogs, which would look independent but use search engine optimisation to try and appear ahead of the criticism in Google searches. Wikipedia entries could also be edited, as they had all sorts of "dark arts" they could use, although they don't seem to have managed this on their own.

One thing the phone hacking scandal and the subsequent Leveson inquiry has somewhat distracted attention from is that there has been for some time a nexus between certain PR companies, the more aggressive reputation managing legal firms and celebrities/politicians. Bell Pottinger, having been informed of how they'd been stung instantly had a threatening letter from Carter-Ruck sent across (whom they also collaborated with on the Trafigura case), along with an utterly frivolous complaint to the PCC that the rules on subterfuge had been broken. Newspapers for the most part are outside of this loop, although they occasionally enter into it for the access it provides to individuals they would otherwise be denied any access to. Those with long memories might recall how Craig Murray was threatened by representatives of Alisher Usmanov for suggesting his reputation was far from unblemished; a thoroughly softball interview with the corpulent Uzbeki swiftly appeared in the Sunday Times. If the tabloid media is to be cleaned up, as it must, then Cameron has to follow through on his word and do something next about those so eager to boast about their access to him.

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