BAD PR: A year after Bell Pottinger’s demise, its toxic legacy lives on
Exactly one year ago, British PR firm Bell Pottinger received its final death-knell. On 12 September 2017, it went into administration, the firm’s collapse directly precipitated by its work for the Gupta family in South Africa. This week, it was revealed that the man who chaired the British PR industry’s probe into Bell Pottinger, Francis Ingham, had been personally threatened by South African “thugs”. And while the firm itself may no longer exist, the dodgy practices it brought to South Africa’s public discourse appear to be alive and well – as the Democratic Alliance claims to have experienced this week.
Taking on the Gupta family can be costly. Francis Ingham, the head of Britain’s Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA), learnt this the hard way. In an interview with British trade publication PR Week this week, Ingham described the months in 2017 during which he probed the Guptas’ PR agency, Bell Pottinger, as “the most difficult period” of his professional career. Ingham failed to respond to Daily Maverick’s request for comment, but he told PR Week that he had received both electronic and personal threats while the PRCA was investigating Bell Pottinger’s work for the Guptas. Ingham was quoted as saying: “People turned up to my house in London on two occasions and on one occasion to my house in the countryside.” He also stated that the “thugs” who visited him were South African. In addition, Ingham recounted receiving “hundreds of videos” of a violent nature through both social media and email. It was South Africa’s Democratic Alliance which approached the PRCA with the request to investigate Bell Pottinger’s conduct, led by MP Phumzile van Damme. Contacted for comment on Ingham’s allegations, Van Damme told Daily Maverick that she recalled that the hearings the DA attended with the PRCA and Bell Pottinger in London in 2017 had to be held at a secret location due to “threats” received by the industry body. It is unclear if Ingham approached the British police over the threats. “I didn’t take it very seriously but it was rather unpleasant, low-grade threats,” he told PR Week. Ingham’s experience represents a sordid postscript to a sordid story – but one entirely in keeping with the modus operandi employed by Bell Pottinger on behalf of the Guptas, where bots and fake accounts were used to threaten those who opposed the Indian family’s activities in South Africa. And while Bell Pottinger may be dead and gone, the firm’s legacy remains in the continuing use of similar practices locally. The DA’s Van Damme told Daily Maverick that the party has been at the receiving end of a sustained and seemingly orchestrated Twitter attack in recent days – seemingly as a result of events which took place in Parliament’s land hearings last week. When AfriForum’s Ernst Roets appeared before the joint constitutional review committee last week to give his organisation’s submission on the land question, he was heavily criticised by MPs from across the political spectrum for his address – which included the argument that white South Africans had never stolen land from anyone. In response to Roets’ views, the DA’s Glynnis Breytenbach told the committee, “I can’t align myself with anything [Roets] said” – a statement subsequently confirmed as reflecting the wider DA stance on Roets’ submission. Since then, Van Damme says, the DA has been targeted in an electronic onslaught – and the party’s “initial analysis” suggests that AfriForum is behind it. “We can see that they are using bots,” Van Damme told Daily Maverick. “We’ve been receiving a tweet every two minutes from someone saying they’re not voting DA any more. It’s very clearly a singular message.” AfriForum’s Roets’ vehemently denied the charge to Daily Maverick. “I think it’s incredibly ridiculous,” Roets said on Tuesday night. “We have better things to do than encourage our supporters to troll people on Twitter based on something we disagree with.” In Roets’ view, it is highly likely that the tweet storm aimed at the DA is an organic and natural response from voters to the DA’s parliamentary smackdown of AfriForum’s land submission. “Many people are very disillusioned with the DA for being basically hypocritical,” says Roets. “It’s general knowledge that 80% of what I said [in Parliament] is DA policy.” Van Damme stressed that the DA has yet to complete a full analysis of the online events. But she says that the party is braced for more of the same as the 2019 general elections draw closer. “I intend to meet with Twitter SA to see what they’ll be doing ahead of the election to clean up accounts,” she said. “We know that there are companies specialising in ‘bot farms’ who are knocking on the doors of political parties and other groups.” For Van Damme, the age of Bell Pottinger is very much still with us in this respect. “People have adopted [Bell Pottinger’s] practices,” she says. The PRCA’s Ingham concluded his interview with PR Week on a thoroughly positive note: saying that the removal of Bell Pottinger from the PR world had left an industry which is “ethical, professional and a power for good”. Yet the two men originally at the helm of Bell Pottinger – James Henderson and Tim Bell – have gone on to practise PR elsewhere. Henderson registered a company called J&H Communications in December 2017, and though there is little online trace of it, Companies House records reveal that it is an active company with a stake owned by Heather Kerzner, Henderson’s current partner and the former wife of South African hotel magnate Sol Kerzner. It is reported that the firm has already worked with the Turkish government. Bell, meanwhile, remains a director at Sans Frontieres Associates, the international consultancy agency he founded after leaving Bell Pottinger – a firm whose clients include South Africa’s controversial Moti Group. Both Henderson and Bell, however, may not be out of the woods just yet when it comes to Bell Pottinger. Britain’s Financial Times reported on Sunday that former Bell Pottinger directors are to be investigated by the UK Insolvency Service for possible misconduct related to the firm’s Gupta account. The end result could be their disqualification as directors for up to 15 years. That’s an outcome which would doubtless meet with a warm reception in South Africa. But regardless of the ultimate fate of those connected with the British PR firm, the unethical Bell Pottinger practices which shocked the nation may now be rooted too deeply into South Africa’s public discourse to dislodge. DM