One of Britain's largest lobbying companies has been secretly recorded boasting about its access to the heart of the Government and how it uses the "dark arts" to bury bad coverage and influence public opinion.
An undercover investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, published today, has taped senior executives at Bell Pottinger:
- Claiming they have used their access to Downing Street to get David Cameron to speak to the Chinese premier on behalf of one of their business clients within 24 hours of asking him to do so;
- Boasting about Bell Pottinger's access to the Foreign Secretary William Hague, to Mr Cameron's chief of staff Ed Llewellyn and to Mr Cameron's old friend and closest No 10 adviser Steve Hilton;
- Suggesting that the company could manipulate Google results to "drown" out negative coverage of human rights violations and child labour;
- Revealing that Bell Pottinger has a team which "sorts" negative Wikipedia coverage of clients;
- Saying it was possible to use MPs known to be critical of investigative programmes to attack their reporting for minor errors.
Reporters from the Bureau posed as agents for the government of Uzbekistan – a brutal dictatorship responsible for killings, human rights violations and child labour – and representatives of its cotton industry in a bid to discover what promises British lobbying and public relations firms were prepared to make when pitching to clients, what techniques they use, and how much of their work is open to public scrutiny.
In Uzbekistan, child labour is used in cotton fields to fulfil state quotas and the country also has a terrible human rights record: the think tank Freedom House put it on its 2011 list of the "Worst of the Worst" repressive regimes.
'I've been working with Hilton, Cameron, Osborne, for 20 years'
The Bureau contacted ten London firms. Two refused to take the business, several others did not reply, while five including Bell Pottinger appeared to be keen to work with the fictitious Uzbek representatives. Bell Pottinger quoted "£1m-plus" as a fee for carrying out the work.
Their claims – which were secretly recorded – will add to mounting concerns that an absence of regulation has made London the global centre for "reputation laundering", where lobbyists work behind the scenes on behalf of the world's most controversial regimes.
David Cameron pledged to tackle lobbying five years ago and then again last year, saying it was "the next big scandal waiting to happen" and "has tainted our politics for too long, an issue that exposes the far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money". He said he wanted to shine "the light of transparency" on lobbying so that politics "comes clean about who is buying power and influence".
During two undercover meetings in June and July 2011 at its Chancery Lane offices, senior Bell Pottinger executives showed few signs of being deterred by Uzbekistan's dire reputation. They made it clear that the Uzbek government would need to put genuine reforms in place if it were to improve its image and outlined how it could work with the Government, Parliament and the media to do so.
They talked openly about the work the firm had done with other regimes with questionable human rights records including Sri Lanka and Belarus and how they could navigate the corridors of power for clients.
Tim Collins, managing director of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, told the reporters he used to be Mr Llewellyn's boss in Conservative Central Office, and had worked with Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne in the Conservative Research Department.
"I've been working with people like Steve Hilton, David Cameron, George Osborne for 20 years-plus. There is not a problem getting the messages through," he said.
His colleague David Wilson boasted the firm was the "most powerful public affairs business in the country". Asked whether he could help organise a meeting between Mr Cameron and the Uzbek President – despite protocol dictating that such meetings are organised by ambassadors – he said: "We can facilitate that".
Mr Collins later clarified that such a meeting might be an "end point" to aim for, once the country was seen to be genuinely improving its human rights record.
'David Cameron raised it with the Chinese Prime Minister'
During the undercover meeting, Bell Pottinger – whose chairman is Margaret Thatcher's former media adviser Lord (Tim) Bell – claimed to have used its influence on behalf of the engineering firm Dyson to ask Mr Cameron to complain about copyright infringement to the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao during a state visit in June 2011.
"We were rung up at 2.30 on a Friday afternoon, by one of our clients, Dyson," Mr Collins explained. "He said 'We've got a huge issue. A lot of our products are being ripped off in China.' On the Saturday David Cameron raised it with the Chinese Prime Minister."
He added that, "He [Cameron] was doing it because we asked him to do it," and because the issue was in the wider national interest. In terms of very fast turnaround and getting things done right at the top of government, if you've got the right message, we can do it," he said.
Mr Collins also recommended a meeting with Daniel Finkelstein, chief leader writer at The Times – who he said was very close to Mr Cameron. "He will sit down and have lunch with just about anybody," he said. "That doesn't mean he's going to agree with them, but occasionally something out of that lunch will get dropped into a future column."
Joint events could be held with influential think tanks close to government, such as Policy Exchange, the firm suggested. Another strategy would include passing information to key academics "so that they are then blogging the right messages out there – so it's coming from an independent," said Mr Wilson.
Mr Finkelstein said last night: "I am flattered if anyone thinks I am interesting enough to have lunch with. But anyone promoting either undemocratic or anti-social policies would find me a pretty closed door and hasn't to my knowledge come knocking".
'We've got all sorts of dark arts'
Discussing techniques for managing reputations online, Mr Wilson mentioned a team that could "sort" Wikipedia.
"We've got all sorts of dark arts," added Mr Collins. "I told him [David Wilson] he couldn't put them in the written presentation because it's embarrassing if it gets out."
A presentation shown during the meeting said it could "create and maintain third-party blogs" – blogs that appeared to be independent. These would contain positive content and popular key words that would rank highly in Google searches.
The pair also explained how the firm enables government videos and articles to move to the top of internet searches, while less favourable stories can move down the rankings.
"The ambition obviously is to drown that negative content and make sure that you have positive content out there online," Mr Wilson said.
The firm cited past examples of its work, included manipulating Google rankings for an East African money transfer company called Dahabshiil. Bell Pottinger executives said they had ensured that references to a former Dahabshill employee subsequently detained in Guantanamo Bay because of alleged links to al-Qai'da disappeared from the first 10 pages of a Google search for the company.
Another defensive method cited in the meeting was the use of politicians to attack a broadcaster.
"There are a lot of people in Parliament who can't stand Channel 4 and can't stand Dispatches," Mr Collins said.
"So if there are any inaccuracies, even if they're fairly minor, you can work with some people who have a track record of not liking Channel 4, wanting to score points against Channel 4 [who will say:] 'Here is another instance of Channel 4 over-reaching themselves and putting out stuff they haven't properly checked'."
'Britain has this sort of moral ethic it thinks it can impose on the world'
Uzbekistan has recently expelled Human Rights Watch. The US think-tank Freedom House has said: "Uzbekistan's government continued to suppress all political opposition and restrict independent business activity in 2010. The few remaining civic activists and critical journalists in the country faced prosecution, fines, and lengthy prison terms."
In addition, Uzbekistan's cotton is the subject of an international boycott by several clothing manufacturers because the country still allegedly uses forced labour, including child labour, in its harvest.
Bureau journalists posed as members of the "Azimov Group" – a group of British and Eastern European investors concerned with exporting cotton textiles. They claimed they had been tasked by the Uzbek government with improving the country's image in the UK, and that the government would be committed to reform.
"A number of [our client] governments have had serious reputational issues," said Mr Collins.
But he also stressed a need for genuine commitment to reform. "Everything we are recommending is predicated on the agreement by the government to change," he said. "[That] justifies why a PR company is representing a country which previously people shouldn't have been talking to. Now it actually wants to change it is fully acceptable."
Another executive stressed, whilst talking about one of the firm's clients: "I wouldn't actually represent a client whom I didn't believe."
He added: "Just trying to sell the situation as it is or to say that things are changing when in reality they aren't is not going to work. Once we're clear that we've got the collateral, the proof that things are changing, then obviously we have the connections to get the message through to the right people."
'This is a £100,000-a-month campaign'
Bell Pottinger told the reporters that they had previously helped convince the EU that Belarus was committed to reform. But shortly after the EU lifted a travel ban on the Belarus President, the country went back to its old ways and the ban was eventually reinstated.
Bell Pottinger and the Belarus government stopped working together in 2009. Last week Belarus courts sentenced two men to death despite pleas for mercy and international outcry.
Changes did not need to be fast, Mr Collins said. "As long as you can see that each year is a little better than before, that's fine."
Bell Pottinger's services do not come cheap. "A million pounds plus," is what Mr Wilson quoted to do the job. "This is certainly a £100,000-a-month campaign, to make it very effective."
This would buy a media-relations campaign, online reputation management and the public-affairs team "working with you on a governmental level".
The country should stress its position as an emerging market, he suggested. "To the Western world it's a developing market so you can always have the message that: 'We are changing with the times – we are emerging, learning as a nation and growing'," he said.
He added: "Britain has this sort of moral ethic it thinks it can impose upon the world still because of our colonial background and the Commonwealth. We forget that 100 years ago we had kids working in cotton mills here."
Asked whether the firm would be prepared to work for the Azimov Group without knowing the identity of the campaign's ultimate funders, Mr Wilson said: "If the media asks us who your [our] client is, there has to be an audit trail." But a few seconds later also said: "In our work for Belarus, nobody knows who paid us."
Lord Bell was provided with details last Friday morning of the above. He responded yesterday via his lawyers, Carter Ruck, attacking the Bureau. Lord Bell said: "The conduct of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism does not remotely constitute responsible journalism. It is an attempt by unethical, deception to manufacture a story where none exists."
A spokeswoman for the Prime Minister said: "It is simply not true that Bell Pottinger or indeed any other lobbying company has any influence on government policy."
Downing Street sources said that the Dyson company's concerns had been raised with the Chinese premier, that it was a legitimate matter to raise and that they were unaware of Bell Pottinger's involvement.
Mr Dyson did not comment last night.
During two meetings that were secretly recorded in June and July 2011, two undercover reporters talked with Tim Collins, managing director of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, David Wilson, chairman of Bell Pottinger Public Relations, and former diplomat Sir David Richmond, who works for the firm's "strategic communications and geopolitical" specialist arm, Bell Pottinger Sans Frontières. Below are extracts of the conversations which took place.
Tim Collins: "I'm Tim Collins. I was in the Conservative research department with David Cameron and George Osborne, I was later press secretary to John Major, director of communications for the Conservative Party. Then I went into Parliament, and I was in the Shadow Cabinet under two or three leaders, again with David Cameron and George Osborne, and I run the public-affairs side of the Bell Pottinger business... I've been working with people like Steve Hilton, David Cameron, George Osborne, for 20 years-plus.
"Edward Llewellyn, who's the Prime Minister's chief of staff, was my deputy in Central Office for a long time. Steve Hilton was my deputy in a different capacity. I know all these people. There is not a problem in getting the messages through to them.
"... James Arbuthnot, for example, is the chair of the Defence Select Committee. When I was an opposition whip he was a chief whip, so he and I know each other very well. Rory Stewart is a very high-profile Member of Parliament because he's got a very strong interest in Central Asian issues; he represents the constituency that is next to mine when I was a Member of Parliament, so I know him.
"... Just as a final example just for you... I'm not saying we can always do this but just as an example of what we can sometimes do. Three weeks ago, we were rung up at 2.30 on a Friday afternoon by one of our clients, Dyson... They rang up and they said look, we've got a huge issue, and that is that a lot of our products are being completely ripped off in China, to the point where they're not just completely duplicating the product... (The) Chinese government won't take it seriously, it's half past two on a Friday afternoon. On Saturday, the Chinese Prime Minister is coming in for a UK visit – can you please get the UK to raise it?
"... And I'm pleased to say that on the Saturday, David Cameron raised it with the Chinese Prime Minister and showed him the photos of the products. I'm not saying we can do that all the time but that is an illustration of what, if you have the right message – David Cameron, yes he was doing it for Dyson, yes he was doing it because we asked him to do it, he was doing this also because he thought this was also in the UK wider national interest. This was something where there would be a UK proper interest. But in terms of very fast turnaround and getting things done right at the top of government, if you've got the right message, yes, we can do it."
David Wilson: We had a team working in the President's office, we wrote the President's speech to the UN last year, which was very well received. We were writing a speech at the same time as [President Rajapaksa] was asking his foreign office to write a speech as well, and he chose to use our speech despite several attempts by the foreign office to change the tune. And it went a long way to taking the country where it needed to go. Fundamentally, though, they've set up something called the Peace and Reconciliation Commission, which has got one fundamental flaw in its remit in investigating what has gone on in the past, to try to bury the past, and unfortunately because that is the case, media like Channel 4 and The Times find the whole Peace and Reconciliation Commission is flawed. And it's not flawed but it doesn't go that extra step that it needs to go to fully embrace Western opinion or Western concern about the entire situation.
"... Some of the things we recommended weren't taken up by the government and so we would have loved to have had a far more successful campaign. As I said to you before, we're only as good as the collateral that we are given to work with and if a government might say it wants to change but won't change, then sorry, that will come back and hit them. And I probably don't need to say any more about the reputation of Sri Lanka."
Managing reputations online
DW: "Along the wall there on the outside is a big cutting for a company called Dahabshiil, which is the biggest money-transfer business in the Horn of Africa, born and developed in Somalia. They came to us and said, can you solve my Google problem. And their problem was, while they had a very ethical business, doing things the right way and transferring 90 per cent of money going in and out of Somalia and other war-torn countries, different markets in Africa, including money for aid agencies, for the UN etc – when you looked at Google, the vast majority of the searches on the first five pages were about a former employee who was holed up in Guantanamo Bay, who had left Dahabshiil long before he was arrested. No charges had been brought against him but nonetheless he was this former Dahabshiil employee and this was the story. It took us three months, but after three months we searched down the first 10 pages of Google – you couldn't find it within the first 10 pages."
TC: "And where we want to get to – and this will take time, this is where David's team are magical – is you get to the point where even if they type in 'Uzbek child labour' or 'Uzbek human rights violation', some of the first results that come up are sites talking about what you guys are doing to address and improve that, not just the critical voices saying how terrible this all is."
REPORTER: "The President is not particularly happy with his Wikipedia entry or the Uzbek government's Wikipedia entry. You did mention earlier that there might be ways to – would that be something that we could deal with?"
TC: "We've got all sorts of dark arts. I told him he couldn't put them in the written presentation because it's embarrassing if it gets out because he's so good at it."