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Tue 17 September 2019
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Iain Overton on the death of advertising tycoon Lord Timothy Bell, an advisor to Margaret Thatcher and co-founder of the controversial firm Bell Pottinger.


Lord Bell is dead. The media guru famed for being Margaret Thatcher’s PR man has succumbed after a prolonged illness.

Some have responded to this news with the adage that you ‘should not speak ill of the dead’ in mind. ITV News‘ political editor Robert Peston announced the Conservative advisor’s demise on Twitter with the words: “He was the best company, always honest with me, enormous fun. He was a pirate of the old school… the world is poorer for their passing.”

If just being a character is a prelude to forgiveness, then should we say the same about the Kray Twins and Jimmy Savile? 

Some certainly think so. PR Week summed up Bell as a “titan” who was “warm, charismatic and fun in person”. It did not mention that he was once charged with masturbating in front of two teenage girls. Or that he was a man who, it is said, thought that a suitable present for his son’s pre-prep school teacher was a box of expensive lingerie.

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Bell was a free market libertarian who happily accepted the blood money of a string of despots – from being Pinochet’s reputation-launderer to accepting funds to do the bidding of the human rights-abusing governments of Belarus, Sri Lanka and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to name a few.

I know the depths of Bell’s avarice all too well. A few years ago, I decided to expose his company, Bell Pottinger, for laundering the reputations of despots and oligarchs the world over. A team at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism was formed. We sat down and thought about what would be the outer edges of the defensible and came up with the notion that we could pose as advisors to the Uzbek Government. We could pretend we were seeking a London PR company to help improve the country’s reputation in forcing children to be employed in the nationalised cotton industry. Child slave labour was a true and awful scenario that proved too much for some of the PR companies we approached.  Many refused to even meet us. Not Bell Pottinger.

Instead, we were ushered into board rooms where a succession of men in suits told us how they excelled at the “dark arts” (their actual words). We learnt over time how they could manipulate the news, influence Number 10, run fake social media accounts, discredit journalists and distort the truth. They wanted to charge hundreds of thousands of pounds for this.

When we gave the story to The Independent, it caused industry-wide waves. The great and the good of PR lined up to disavow Bell’s tactics. 

But Lord Bell himself was unrepentant. He emailed me with bitter invective. He lied about my journalism on BBC’s Newsnight saying it was “unethical, underhand deception to manufacture a story where none exists”. I was not given the right to reply. When I commented in an email that he had lined his pockets with the money of criminality and immorality in accepting such clients, he accused me of jealousy. That, he thought, was my motivation: I was envious of his Empire of Deceit.

A few months later, I forgot to renew my website’s hosting www.iainoverton.com. It was swiftly bought up by someone who then created a website for zit cream. It was funny, but it was also the sort of underhand ploy that Lord Bell excelled at.

In the end, though, his immoral centre could not hold and things fell apart. His claim that there was no story in my investigation was shown up as a lie. Indeed, it was just the tip of the iceberg. Bell Pottinger, the company he ran for 28 years, was closed down in 2017 after an inquiry found it breached ethical principles in South Africa. His team there had been paid to run a secret campaign to stir up racial tension on behalf of billionaire clients.

So, let us not remember a person who has been described in endless obituaries as a ‘devoted family man’, or an ‘inspiration to everyone’. Let us not remember, as PR Week would have us do, that he believed “everyone is entitled to commercial advocacy in the face of an increasingly aggressive media”. This “commercial advocacy” was so often paid by ruthless governments whose citizens had no say in how their taxes were spent, or by corrupt businessmen who avoided paying taxes altogether.

Lord Bell was influential, certainly – but not in a good way. It could even be argued that the current mess we find ourselves in of fake news, targeted political advertising and troll factories was laid down by the immoral ‘the means justifies the ends’ philosophy of the likes of Lord Bell.

As Shakespeare once penned: “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.” 

In this case, the legacy of the ‘piratical’ PR man and the unethical media manipulator lives on.

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