Today
Wed 29 September 2021

Iain Overton recalls his undercover investigation into a notorious PR firm and explains why the scandal around lobbying and the ‘revolving door’ has worsened under Boris Johnson’s Government

As a journalist, perhaps the first rule of going undercover is to remember your fake name.

“Mr Johnson. Mr Johnson.” 

The receptionist was speaking but I sat there, unmoving, gazing into the middle-distance. She repeated it, louder until, with a jolt, I remembered who I was meant to be. I turned with a smile.

“Mr Johnson. They are ready to see you now.”

My thumb clicked the secret camera to record. 

Charles Johnson. Failed in London, tried Hong Kong. Asian-based, ex-public schoolboy, go-between.

In this incarnation, I was asking Bell Pottinger – a PR company that some referred to as the ‘Devil’s Advocate’ – to produce a campaign for Uzbekistan’s cotton industry. Mine was a sting designed to show how far this media company would go to gloss over the inconvenient truth that the Uzbek cotton industry was built on unpaid child labour.

Looking back on it, perhaps I should have called myself “Dave”. 

After all, my undercover filming for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism was entirely inspired by David Cameron. During a Conservative Party Conference speech in 2010, the future Prime Minister had predicted corporate lobbying would be “the next big scandal” – possibly to create a diversion of sorts from the MPs’ expenses row.

But with that he had set the hares running.

Bell Pottinger was certainly scandalous. When it existed, the PR firm had worked for dictators such as Chile’s Augusto Pinochet and Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko; had undertaken work for repressive regimes like Bahrain, Egypt and Sri Lanka; and even produced propaganda for the Pentagon.

It was all part of a toxic culture of lobbying in London that had evolved over the years – one in which a clutch of PR firms was willing to do the bidding of whoever sought representation. It was “the global capital of reputation laundering”, as the Evening Standard put it. And Bell Pottinger was the Queen Bee of this hive of disrepute.

“Morality is a job for priests,” Bell Pottinger’s Conservative founder, Lord Tim Bell, had once told The New York Times. “Not PR men.”

Certainty, there appeared to be little morality in Bell Pottinger’s offices. 

There, one managing director oblivious to the recording, fell over himself to win the promised contract. He promised we could “get to the point where, even if they type in ‘Uzbek child labour’ or ‘Uzbek human rights violation’, some of the first results that come up are sites talking about what you guys are doing to address and improve that, not just the critical voices saying how terrible this all is”.

In a later meeting, conducted in 2011, they boasted of their ability to get Cameron to speak to the Chinese premier on behalf of one of their business clients. They admitted to running a team which “sorted” negative Wikipedia coverage of clients. They said it was possible to use MPs known to be critical of investigative programmes to attack reporters for minor errors. And they boasted about using ‘dark arts’ in their media manipulation.

It was not an undercover sting taken lightly. The Bureau had gathered information about PR companies and the many regimes they represented. We had interviewed senior PR executives off-the-record about methods used to ‘clean’ reputations. And we had met campaigners concerned about the lack of transparency in the PR world. But we knew that, unless we caught these PR men on camera, they would just deny it all and attack the journalists, not address the journalism.

When we ran the story, it dominated the Independent’s front page for days, and sparked a fresh debate in politics.


The Members’ Club

The following year, 2012, the issue of lobbying spiked in Parliament. A parliamentary consultation paper entitled ‘Introducing a Statutory Register of Lobbyists’ was launched. The aim was to “increase the information available about lobbyists without unduly restricting lobbyists’ freedom”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the end result – a register of lobbyists launched in 2015, which now boasts 178 members – was immediately decried as ‘feeble’.

And, a decade on, things have not just not improved, but taken a turn for the worst.

The man who inspired the undercover operation, David Cameron, is now having to answer questions about his own conduct while lobbying ministers for the scandal-hit private finance firm Greensill Capital. It has since emerged that at least two Cabinet Office advisors were hired by Greensill while they were working for the Civil Service, raising further questions over the ‘revolving door’ between politics and PR firms.

In addition, research by Byline Times and The Citizens has shown that, since the lobby register was launched, 11 companies on it have donated some £830,000 to political parties. Of this, almost half, 49%, has gone to the Conservative Party. In the years before the lobby register was created, just 34% of donations from those on the list went to the Conservatives.

So, did my undercover sting do any good?

Certainly, it hit Bell Pottinger where it hurt – its bottom line – and contributed to a reduced revenue forecast of about £4 million. The now deceased Lord Bell admitted that it had “had a deleterious effect… on relationships with clients”.

It was to weaken a company which, when it was discovered in 2017 that it had run a racially-charged PR campaign in South Africa, was to close in disgrace. This was after, true to spirit, the firm had been kicked out of the UK’s industry body for running a campaign that had presented opponents of President Jacob Zuma and the Guptas as agents of “white monopoly capital”.

But the Bureau’s exposé did not lead to systemic reform of the industry itself. What is required is a far deeper commitment to address lobbying. The fact that the register of lobbyists does not demand the declaration of conflicts of interest or political donations is symptomatic of a structural failing in the British political system.

This failing has meant that £3 billion of COVID-19 contracts have gone to companies linked to Conservative donors or those with close ties to the party. This failing has led to a ‘government-by-WhatsApp’ – conducted beyond scrutiny, with private messages and private meetings as standard. And this failing means that MPs from all political hues see their post-political careers as a lucrative foray into the world of lobbying; a world in which old connections are milked and conflicts of interest dismissed by some in the press.

The truth is that much of the mainstream media is complicit in all of this. It relies on the well-oiled machinery of PR, lobbying and political contacts to get scoops and to sell papers. For those reporters, to go out and film ex-politicians undercover doing their sordid backroom business would be a betrayal of the very members’ club that some of these journalists seek to be a part of or at least aligned to.

To address the true extent of political lobbying today will take far more than another Charles Johnson blustering his way into the offices of a PR firm. It requires a revolution at the heart of government.

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