Undercover probe of Bell Pottinger cleared by PCC

PR company Bell Pottinger has had a complaint to the PCC rejected after the Bureau of Investigation posed as representatives of the Uzbek cotton industry to film its staff.

Bell Pottinger complained that the investigation, which appeared in The Independent last December, breached clause 10 of the Editors' Code which outlaws use of subterfuge unless there is a public interest defence.

Bell Pottinger said the subterfuge had been unnecessary as the BIJ could have openly inquired under what circumstances they would have been prepared to advise the government of Uzbekistan. They said they had offered to meet BIJ staff to discuss the story in November 2011, but this offer had been declined.

Bell Pottinger said the manner in which the material had been presented – including the publication of the video footage – had sensationalised the story, and created a misleading impression that wrongdoing had been exposed.

The Independent said that the BIJ had decided in early 2011 to explore the possibility of investigating the lobbying industry.

The newspaper said the BIJ had met four senior PR executives, none of whom was prepared to speak on the record. The first source – who had worked for a number of firms, including Bell Pottinger – claimed that Bell Pottinger would 'never'admit to 'dirty tricks'it allegedly used, such as ghost writing speeches and news copy and manipulating the web in its clients' favour. The source expressed doubt that anyone would be prepared to 'blow the whistle'publicly on such techniques.

The second source was said to be a senior contact at Chime Communications (Bell Pottinger's parent group) who was highly critical of Bell Pottinger's ethics and the style of its senior management.

A third interview was conducted with a current employee of Bell Pottinger who provided details about the individuals likely to work on foreign government projects and the methods they employed. This source was said to be adamant that Bell Pottinger would never go into detail publicly about its controversial techniques.

The BIJ also said it met with a PR specialist who had never worked for Bell Pottinger but who claimed the firm had a particularly bad reputation in the industry for its ethics and conduct and suggested that the only way the BIJ was likely to learn how PR firms were prepared to operate in this area was to 'pretend to be someone nasty".

Posing as representatives of the Uzbek cotton industry – because the country had a 'truly awful'human rights record that allegedly included the use of child labour in its cotton harvest – BIJ staff said they approached ten companies. Of these, five firms – including Bell Pottinger – indicated that they might be prepared to work with the 'clients'and had been filmed.

The Independent told the PCC that Britain's electorate had a right to know about the firm's claims to links with those in power, and its evident willingness to work with a regime that, even if some reforms were put in place, would remain 'brutal". It said the general public would be unaware of the techniques discussed – including anonymously editing Wikipedia pages and altering search results – and could be misled by them.

It said that using these techniques to replace negative search results about the Uzbek government and an industry that uses child labour with positive results for 'balance'was 'morally abhorrent".

The PCC ruled that there was sufficient public interest in the BIJ using subterfuge and that its information from anonymous sources gave it sufficient grounds to do so.

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