INTERNATIONAL - You don't just go and do terrible things straight away," says my ex-Bell Pottinger colleague over drinks in a South London wine bar.
We're discussing the scandal that finally sunk the PR house after it was caught inciting racial hatred in South Africa on behalf of its clients, the Gupta family, and their investment vehicle Oakbay. Now, Bell Pottinger has collapsed into administration after being expelled from the industry regulatory body the PRCA, with hundreds losing their jobs.
"You build up to doing bad things, without even realising what you're doing is bad," they go on.
"Your boss tells you to do something, so you do it." After working in the lobbying industry for three years, I left to become a journalist in 2015. During that time I worked at a number of big-name firms, including Bell Pottinger.
I learned a lot from my experiences in the industry, and on the whole I don't regret it. I worked with smart, good people who taught me how to be hard-working and professional. I made lifelong friends. And I represented clients that I believed were doing important things – making great strides in the technology world, or lobbying the Government on behalf of those who could not, like pensioners living in fuel poverty.
Bell Pottinger's downfall has dominated headlines for months, but I'll rehearse the key details here briefly. They ran a social media campaign on behalf of Oakbay, who were paying the firm £100,000 a month. In return for this pant-droppingly huge amount, Bell Pottinger created dummy Facebook accounts that stirred up hatred against "white monopoly capital" in a nation where the memory of racial violence is as red-raw as a freshly inked tattoo. It was a venal, despicable thing to do. But having worked in the industry, I can understand how it happened.
People tend to think of corporate lobbying as an industry peopled by Renaissance-era courtiers plotting political intrigues over North London lasagne suppers or in the gaudy interiors of Saudi jets. This does happen. But most of the time, things are duller and more prosaic. Understand the industry, and you'll understand how good people overcame their scruples to do a terrible injustice to the people of South Africa.
Working in a firm like Bell Pottinger becomes more stressful the higher up you get. Partners need to bring in new business to justify their salaries, and they need to over-service their most expensive, demanding clients. In a culture where executives are constantly measured against financial targets, the pressure to keep lucrative families like the Guptas happy becomes paramount – and scruples were quietly dropped.
What have the other PR houses said of Bell Pottinger's demise, after all? Nothing. Their silence resembles the quiet whir a cash machine makes before dispensing notes: to speak out would risk shining the spotlight on their own activities – and besides, they're too busy wining and dining Bell Pottinger's former clients! (It'll be steak for supper at many PR firms this autumn.)
Bell Pottinger wasn't exceptional, and this probably isn't even the worst thing they did. It's important to remember that the only reason Bell Pottinger was undone was because of the work of the South African opposition party to expose them. Without that, Bell Pottinger would still be free to represent the Oscar Pistoriuses of this world. And they'd be in good company. Similarly reprehensible practices are widespread at firms across London.
I've heard firsthand from a former lobbying industry executive (at a different firm) of repressive Middle Eastern governments personally bribing British journalists to look favourably on their activities; of "war rooms" pumping out made-up blogs and social media postings spreading fake news. Spray luminol across London's major PR houses, and you'll see similar blood spatters.
It may seem astonishing to someone who's never worked in the industry that good people could work on the Oakbay account and not raise objections. (From what it's worth, my sources within the company tell me that many did, and were overruled). But it's not to me.
You're an inexperienced account executive, or a harried partner with a new business target and pressure from above. You're not a savvy geopolitical operator and barely understand South African politics. You're used to skirting close to the line and, above all, to obeying orders — the culture of deference in firms at Bell Pottinger is paramount. Above all, you uphold the sacrosanct belief of all lobbyists: that everyone is entitled to representation, in the same way they'd be entitled to a lawyer.
When you're in the business of representing some of the worst people in the world, it's easy to lose your head. Things that are objectively very wrong – whipping up racial hatred, for instance – become professionalised and clinical. It's hard to recognise what you're doing, really, as you upload a blog post from a smart London office. You detach from your actions as cleanly as a pathologist, unflinching as you peel the skin away from the dead.
In 1971, psychology professor Philip Zimbardo ran a psychological experiment to understand the implications of perceived power. Over the course of the Stanford prison experiment, the white, middle class men designated "guards" tortured, humiliated, and stripped naked their "prisoners".
Eventually, the experiment was stopped because one woman – Christina Maslach, a graduate psychology student – questioned its morality. Out of 50 people involved, she was the only one to do so. There are clear parallels to be made, nearly 50 years on, with Bell Pottinger's collapse. Good people did bad things because authority figures in a deference-heavy culture told them it was the right thing to do. If a lesson is to be learned, it's that we need more Christina Maslachs in the world – and we need to listen to them.
- The Independent UK