News 11th Sep 2017

Bell Pottinger: Rotten Apple or an Industry That Needs to Look in the Mirror?

Robert Barrington

Executive Director (former)

Robert served as Executive Director of Transparency International UK from 2013 until July 2019. He is now Professor of Anti-Corruption Practice at Sussex University’s Centre for the Study of Corruption.

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Like most investigations into corruption, the independent reports into the Bell Pottinger case have lifted the lid on the dark underside of a company and industry that like to present themselves as highly respectable and making a valuable contribution to the UK’s economy.

Let me start with a caveat to what follows.  Many communications professionals are just that, and do respectable work, but this should not stop us from challenging the sector’s less savoury activities.  The industry’s trade body, the PRCA, is to be commended for expelling Bell Pottinger and putting stringent conditions on the company’s re-admission.  Less convincing is the suggestion that this one company was a rotten apple, and the rest of the industry is squeaky clean.

Transparency International has been tracking for around a decade the growing use of London and a small number of other global centres by corrupt individuals and undesirable regimes.  They use London to launder money, but also to launder their reputations.  What could be better if you have stolen money from a state budget (health, defence or education, for example) in your own country, than to spend it out of sight of those you have stolen it from, in London, Paris, New York, Shanghai or Dubai?  You can buy a fine property, a football club, possibly a newspaper; educate your children in private schools and top universities; build up political connections to insulate yourself and others like you from annoying laws or foreign policies.

Who can help in this?  Your favoured PR specialists – and law firms, some of which now have divisions that operate in much the same way.   The law firms will be fierce in ‘protecting’ your reputations through writs, threats and use of the UK’s libel laws (Transparency International has fought off a few of these recently).  The PR advisers can plan your reputation laundering strategy, clean you up on social media and make the right introductions and connections – sponsoring or speaking at an All-Party Parliamentary Group, or making donations to universities and art galleries.  Even better, your friendly PR adviser can help launder the reputation of the whole country from which you stole the money – so that crooks in public office look like defenders of freedom while the opposition are agitators and terrorists.

It might sound like fantasy.  But look at the detail of the Bell Pottinger case: it is all to be found there and in similar cases, like the defence of the Maldives government by Cherie Blair’s firm and the £33 million spent immediately following democracy protests in 2011 by the government of Bahrain on London-based PR support.

The ‘rotten apple’ defence is often rolled out in corruption cases, but very seldom proves true.  Bell Pottinger may be a rotten apple: it could equally well be the tip of a very unsavoury iceberg, revealed because its behaviour was so outrageous that it could not be tolerated even by those who were claiming a bare few months ago that this kind of thing could never happen.  The evidence all points in one direction: London has become a major centre of global reputation laundering for corrupt individuals and regimes, and some in the PR industry are wholly complicit in this.  How many firms are involved, and how deep does this go?  It is almost impossible to tell.  That is why the industry needs a trade body that is willing to look hard at the industry and check whether it is operating to the standards that society finds acceptable.  If the industry is unable or unwilling to raise standards itself, inevitably it will be imposed from the outside.  The PRCA has made a good start; but now is the time for the industry to launch a thorough and independent look at itself, not to try and defend the indefensible.

What is a stake here is what kind of country the UK wants to be post-Brexit.  Will we be a global standard-setter, supporting the international rule of law and defending those people across the world who are the daily victims of corruption?  Or will we be part of a race to the bottom, a welcome recipient of money whatever the source, and happily providing our expert professional services to whoever wants to pay?  In the light of the Bell Pottinger scandal, the pressure is mounting on the UK’s PR industry to declare where it stands.