Bell Potinger's campaign to inflame racial hatred

By Alex Davidson

In September 2017 the PR company, Bell Pottinger, went into administration following revelations that it had orchestrated a PR campaign in South Africa to ‘inflame racial discord’. In the days before its demise Bell Pottinger had been expelled from its trade body, the Public Relations and Communications Association, which stated that it had never before “passed down such a damning indictment of an agency’s behaviour”

Bell Pottinger were being paid £100,000 per month by Oakbay Capital, the holding company of the Guptas. The deal had been set-up by Lord Bell in 2016 although he resigned from Bell Pottinger later that year but was still being paid £1m per month by Bell Pottinger until December 2016. He denied any involvement with the Bell Pottinger secret PR and social media campaign in South Africa, designed to stir up racial tension, which included attacks on ‘white monopoly capital’. The campaign was designed to turn people’s ire away from the Gupta family and their connections with President Jacob Zuma.

Bell Pottinger had been a subsidiary of Chime Communications until a management buy-out led by Tim Bell in 2012. Chime Communications is owned by the US firm Providence and Sir Martin Sorrell’s WPP. It was the second biggest shareholder in Bell Pottinger and it handed back its 27% stake in the company for free to escape the scandal just before the collapse.  

Tim Bell, a friend of former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, ran the Tory Party’s PR campaigns for the 1979, 1983 and 1987 General Elections. He became a founder of Chime Communications in 1989 and received his peerage from Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1998.

In 1984, Bell was seconded to the National Coal Board (NCB) to advise on media strategy at the start of the miners’ strike. However, he was so highly regarded, that he became closely involved with the overall political strategy. He worked very closely with Thatcher and Sir Ian McGregor in their determination to defeat the miners.

Bell’s curriculum vitae includes working for FW de Klerk in the National Party’s election campaign in 1994 in South Africa. It was Bell, who orchestrated a media operation to protect Mark Thatcher about his business dealings in Oman; and he was instrumental in the campaign that halted the Serious Fraud Squad investigation of the Al-Yamamah arms deal in 2007.

Bell Pottinger started work in Iraq in 2004 and created propaganda videos on behalf of the US Government in a contract worth more than $500 million. The company employed some 300 British and Iraqi staff. The videos included short news segments made to look like Arabic news networks and fake insurgent videos. 

Following Bell Pottinger going into administration, its Far East arm, headquartered in Singapore, has been rebranded as Klareco Communications (Klareco means “Clarity” in Esperanto) following a management buy-out. 

Bell Pottinger Middle East has been acquired by Hanover Communications, the agency owned by John Major’s former press secretary, Charles Lewington.