Lord Bell has responded to claims his PR firm Bell Pottinger used 'dark arts' to bury bad coverage and influence public opinion – by claiming the news group behind the expose was guilty of deception and inaccuracy.
Bell Pottinger was one of several PR companies exposed by The Bureau Of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) in an undercover sting, after being secretly recorded by reporters.
In the February edition of Press Gazette the bureau's editor Iain Overton explained how they pulled the story off, claiming he had several off-the-record conversations in which 'significant concerns were raised that Bell Pottinger engaged in shady practices".
In this month's edition Lord Bell hit back – claiming Overton's allegations of shady practices 'might carry more weight if they had found any and were not such an important part of his own investigation".
Bell believes that TBIJ failed to explain in its coverage that his company 'went to great lengths'in its presentation to undercover reporters, saying they would get involved with Uzbekistan and the Azimov Group – the fake company set up by the bureau – only if they were committed to 'genuine, verifiable reform".
'Incidentally the fictitious Azimov Group gave us such assurances both verbally and in writing which is why this was an entrapment not just an undercover investigation,'said Bell.
'As to verifiable reform we set out what that would mean in practice and underlined that â€˜selling the status quo, or pretending things are changing if they are not, will not work. Worse, it would be counter-productive.'"
Bells claims this was done both verbally and in writing.
'In other words the BIJ are guilty not only of deception in the way they obtained their story but also of inaccuracy in the way they reported it,'claimed Bell.
'Nor is it correct to suggest that firms like Bell Pottinger operate in secret,'he said.
'How could we? It would be impossible to speak to journalists, opinion formers, Parliamentarians or members of governments or anybody without explaining why we were making contact and on whose behalf we were working."
We have never sued any media entity
Bell said TBIJ implied his firm was acting unethically by offering to represent a repressive regime.
'A true representation of the facts would have made it clear that Bell Pottinger went out of their way to insist that their involvement depended on that regime being willing to commit itself to substantial and verifiable reform,'he added.
'On the subject of ethics and morality I think helping someone, or a company, or a government that seeks rehabilitation is correct. Mr Overton thinks it is ethical and moral to deny such rehabilitation."
In his Press Gazette article, Overton claimed the only formal response from the company came via its lawyer Carter Ruck, who threatened to sue the bureau.
'Two key facts are I think essential to help the reader and observer. I emailed Mr Overton a month before the publication of his investigation to discuss this. He replied saying only if I was prepared to be filmed. I said not at our first discussion. He refused to meet.
'As to us being litigious as Mr Overton says we are – we have never sued any media entity – a verifiable fact. A mature discussion of lobbying and of whether and how it should be regulated is worthwhile but is not advanced by stunts which mislead the public."
Writing in the February edition of Press Gazette, Overton said: "The Bureau felt it was absolutely in the public interest to know exactly what a PR firm representing clients with poor human rights records does to improve their image...
"Lord Bell has since criticised the investigation as being unethical - but then this is from a man who is seemingly quite happy to wash the reputations of countries with significant human rights abuses on their records. I believe it is a fundamental role of journalism to critique those in positions of power."
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