Which company did Aleksander Lukashenko, Europe’s last dictator of Belarus who tortured his own people, including women and children, call to launder his reputation? Which company did Asma al-Assad, wife of Syria’s brutal dictator who systematically incarcerated, tortured and summarily executed his opponents, hire to clean up her image? Which company did the Bahraini government engage to wash away its repression of the opposition, silencing of the independent media and execution of dissidents? Bell Pottinger, PR firm for despots and rogues.
Which PR company did Malta’s Labour government contract for the “provision of a qualitative research project”? That’s right, Bell Pottinger.
Bell Pottinger is thankfully no more. After years playing reputation launderer for the world’s most despised leaders and governments, the company collapsed. What caused its implosion was the diligent work of investigative journalists – a massive email leak, the Gupta leaks, similar to the Panama Papers leak that brought Konrad Mizzi, Keith Schembri and Joseph Muscat to their humiliating fall.
The Guptas, three brothers, were South Africa’s most wealthy powerful businessmen. Through their ties with President Jacob Zuma, the Guptas captured the state of South Africa. They leveraged their connections to swing multi-million procurement decisions their way but also decided who became minister. Like Keith Schembri, the Guptas ran ‘a kitchen cabinet’.
Tony Gupta secretly flew to Switzerland with South Africa’s minerals minister to secure a deal with mining giant Glencore. Keith Schembri flew to Azerbaijan with Konrad Mizzi and Joseph Muscat to secure a gas deal worth billions.
As Zuma’s and the Guptas’ corruption was exposed, the national mood turned against them. The Guptas summoned Britain’s most notorious publicist, Tim Bell from Bell Pottinger to the rescue.
Bell Pottinger devised a nefarious scheme to deflect attention from the widespread corruption and the obscene wealth the Guptas siphoned off the state. They ran a malicious campaign that exploited racial tensions and social inequalities to inflame hatred and violence and distract from the real issue. This included covert dissemination of articles, cartoons, blog posts and tweets fomenting racial hate.
Bell Pottinger even drafted speeches for Zuma’s allies to heighten tensions. They commissioned adverts and suppressed negative Google results through Israeli service Veribo and developed an army of bots to disseminate their message.
Bell Pottinger had no qualms using what the Public Protector’s report termed “reckless and dangerous” tactics that poisoned political discourse. They had done far worse.
The company worked with the Pinochet foundation to prevent the dictator’s extradition to Spain to face murder and torture charges. When undercover reporters pretended to represent Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov, notorious for boiling two dissidents alive in 2002, they had no qualms accepting the brief. Not even Karimov’s enforced child labour put them off.
For their work cleaning Uzbekistan’s image, Bell Pottinger requested $130,000 per month. They boasted they could influence former prime minister David Cameron through their political connections with George Osborne. They would provide the “dark arts” of optimising Google searches and editing Wikipedia pages in their client’s favour.
During the Arab Spring, Bell Pottinger prepared lists of the most influential dissidents on social media, enabling Bahraini authorities to identify, imprison and torture those who spoke up against the regime. For their services, Bell Pottinger received €3.5 million annually.
When another client, Abdul Taib Mahmud, the chief minister of Sarawak, needed to tackle critical journalists, Bell Pottinger promoted false stories about journalists’ sexual improprieties.
Branko Brkic, editor of South Africa’s Daily Maverick said: “Bell Pottinger stole the page from Goebbels and applied it to the 21st century – just plain evil”.
In May 2017, as more than 200,000 emails were leaked, Bell Pottinger was expelled from the UK Public Relations and Communications Association for five years – the harshest possible sanction. The newspaper City A.M. headlined “Bell Rottinger”. Even the Bahraini government dropped the company. Bell Pottinger was declared insolvent. Operations ceased within weeks.
The Guptas fled South Africa and remain fugitives from justice. Zuma, the former liberation hero, has been jailed.
So what was Bell Pottinger really doing for Malta’s Labour government? The Government Gazette’s vague information lists “a qualitative research project”. How much money was the notorious PR company paid? Which of its ruthless dangerous tactics did Bell Pottinger implement in Malta? Did it create fake sites, third party blogs, plant positive content containing popular keywords? Did it provide online monitoring systems to ensure Labour knows who’s dissenting?
Bell Pottinger bragged that it provided the Maltese government with a “country campaign” uploading a Maltese flag on its presentations. So what was it? A qualitative research project or a country campaign?
We will never get answers from Robert Abela’s government. When asked in parliament how much money he spent on PR, Abela’s cynical reply was “no entity or department under the prime minister’s remit spent any money on such services”. Actually, hundreds of thousands were spent on consultancy services.
When a UK parliamentary select committee established links between Cambridge Analytica, Henley and Partners, and Joseph Muscat, Labour was quick to deny. The Maltese High Commission engaged another PR company, Chelgate, to refute those links. Despite Labour’s protestations, the UK parliamentary committee’s report ‘Disinformation and Fake News: Final Report‘ still included Muscat’s links. Labour accused the select committee of “allowing itself to propagate misinformation by anonymous sources”.
Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet revealed in November 2019 that a British PR firm hired by Malta’s government was spreading disinformation about Daphne Caruana Galizia. When Joseph Muscat was asked questions about the journalist’s assassination, the government hired one of the most expensive UK law firms, Carter-Ruck, to address journalists’ questions. Taxpayers’ money was squandered shielding not only Muscat but also his wife.
When rival PR agencies discussed whether to represent questionable clients, they joked that the answer would be “Yes”, “No”, or “one for Bell Pottinger”. Malta’s Labour government was one for Bell Pottinger – that is no joke.