If you think PR’s image couldn’t sink any lower, you’d be wrong. Reading the stunning series this week published by the London Independent and the The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reveals a litany of reasons the industry is in desperate need of sunlight. And how many despotic regimes (and some supposedly friendly ones, such as Israel) hire such firms to make them cool and human rights friendly?
A despotic regime could continue using child labour for up to 20 years and still improve its international standing as long as reforms were under way, according to strategy prepared by senior executives from the lobbying firm Bell Pottinger.
While repeatedly insisting to undercover reporters posing as businessmen from Uzbekistan that it would be necessary to instigate reforms in the country they suggested that slow progress need not be an impediment to better international relations.
“No one is suggesting it would be realistic to say tomorrow the problem will disappear,” said Tim Collins, managing director of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs.
“But we need to put some flesh on the bones of what movement in the right direction looks like.
“So it might be step by step, something like this, set a timeframe, 10, 20 years in the future when it will all be gone completely, but we take it step by step.”
He stated that a minimum age for child labour and a limit on the number of days schoolchildren could work in the cotton industry could be introduced to improve the country’s standing.
Mr Collins suggested an independent survey of the number of children working every six or 12 months: “It doesn’t mean it’s got to zero, maybe it takes quite some time to get to zero. But the number is clearly moving in the right direction. That’s a story you can tell.”
His colleague, Sir David Richmond, Britain’s former special representative to Iraq, added: “So you don’t necessarily have to make huge leaps all the time but there must be a sense in which there is constant progress.”
Both men were recorded as part of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s investigation into lobbying for The Independent.
Keen to attract business from the fictitious cotton industry representatives with links to the Uzbek government they laid out what the company could offer the regime in terms of bringing the country out of international isolation with only gradual degrees of change.
They suggested that if that was the case, the Prime Minister David Cameron might in future be prepared to increase Britain’s links with the country.
“Obama and Cameron… both in different ways to their domestic audiences said that they don’t believe democracy can be parachuted from 4000ft and they’re less inclined to try to impose particular models of government on other countries,” said Mr Collins. He went on to add: “To some extent that’s an asset from your point of view because they’re more interested in realpolitik.”
And he used the example of Libya, under Colonel Gaddafi, to suggest how it might work. “It’s not a parallel that we would draw a lot but Tony Blair for a time played very strongly on the fact that he had been able to open up Libya and Colonel Gaddafi was now becoming much more cuddly.
“That didn’t turn out too well in the long term but for a time, it actually illustrates that it might be what David Cameron, or even President Obama, would quite like – neither of them are at the moment festooned with lots of overseas policy successes that there is a middle ground that can be [formed].”
The extent of Bell Pottinger’s internet manipulation to alter its clients’ reputations online can be revealed today.
Evidence seen by The Independent and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) shows the company made hundreds of alterations to Wikipedia entries about its clients in the last year. Some of the changes added favourable comments while others removed negative content. Several Wikipedia accounts have been suspended pending an investigation by the co-founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, who last night expressed his dismay at Bell Pottinger’s “ethical blindness”.
Among the changes made in the past year by a user – traced to a Bell Pottinger computer – who made the alterations under the pseudonym “Biggleswiki” were:
* Removal of the reference to the university drugs conviction of a businessman who was a client of Bell Pottinger;
* Edited material relating to the arrest of a man accused of commercial bribery;
* Editing of the entries for prostate cancer expert Professor Roger Kirby and his firm, The Prostate Centre. Both are clients of Bell Pottinger. The user added Mr Kirby into a separate page on “prostatectomy” as a notable expert, and edited the entry on the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi to include comments made by Mr Kirby about Megrahi’s cancer.
* Editing the articles of both Chime Communications, parent company of Bell Pottinger, and Naked Eye Research after the former company bought 55 per cent of the latter.
In other cases, damaging allegations against clients of Bell Pottinger, which The Independent cannot publish for legal reasons, were removed from Wikipedia. The connection was first spotted by the blogger Tim Ireland, after reading the joint investigation into Bell Pottinger by the BIJ and The Independent on Tuesday. Undercover BIJ reporters, posing as agents of the Uzbek government, were told that “sorting” negative coverage and criticism on Wikipedia was a service the company could provide.