Exposed: the 'dark arts' used by lobbyists and public affairs firms

A joint undercover investigation by The Independent and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has exposed the ‘dark arts’ employed by lobbying and public affairs companies to “bury bad coverage and influence public opinion”.

According to a report on The Independent and BIJ websites, reporters taped senior executives at Bell Pottinger and recorded them:

  • ‘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.”

The report comes amid an outcry over the use of dark arts by the British national press at the Leveson Inquiry, including the alleged use of phone-hacking and data blagging.

The Independent reports that David Cameron first pledged to tackle lobbying five years ago and 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”.

The reporters posed as agents for the government of Uzbekistan, which opponents claims is responsible for killings, human rights violations and child labour.

Their intention was 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”.

The Bureau contacted ten London firms and said two refused to take the business, several others did not reply and five – including Bell Pottinger –appeared keen to work with the fictitious Uzbek representatives.

Bell Pottinger allegedly quoted “£1m-plus” as a fee for carrying out the work.

Tim Collins, managing director of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, told the undercover reporters that they had a team which could “sort” Wikipedia entries on behalf of its clients.

“We’ve got all sorts of dark arts,” he said. “I told him [colleague David Wilson] he couldn’t put them in the written presentation because it’s embarrassing if it gets out.”

Wilson did, however, stress that there was a ‘need for genuine commitment to reform”:

Everything we are recommending is predicated on the agreement by the government to change.

[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.

The BIJ said that Collins also recommended a meeting with Daniel Finkelstein, chief leader writer at The Times, who he claimed was close to Cameron.

“He will sit down and have lunch with just about anybody,” said Collins. “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.”

Responding to the claims Finkelstein told The Independent:

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.

Bell Pottinger chairman Lord Bell, a former media adviser to Margaret Thatcher, responded to the claims through his lawyers Carter Ruck, saying:

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.

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