Caught on camera: top lobbyists boasting how they influence the PM
Special undercover investigation: Executives from Bell Pottinger reveal ‘dark arts’ they use to burnish reputations of countries accused of human rights violations
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 in The Independent 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."