Deny, deny, deny: Bell Potts says it did nothing wrong around Guptas

JOHANNESBURG — In the final and fourth part of the BBC’s radio series on the Guptas and PR firm Bell Pottinger may leave one asking as to who’s telling the truth. It’s clear that there was a big fallout between the founder and former chair of Bell Potts, Lord Bell, and the current CEO James Henderson. But they each have differing versions of how the Guptas would come to be their most controversial client yet (and that’s saying a lot as Bell Pottinger has represented the likes of Pinochet and Syrian leader Al Bashir’s wife). Lord Bell says he saw red flags all over the Guptas, especially when clients such as Investec and Richemont left Bell Pottinger. However, James Henderson says Bell rarely raised these issues. The truth will eventually come out, especially as hearings into the company are expected to start this week. – Gareth van Zyl 

“Bell Pottinger – No to racism.”

Protesters have taken to the streets in both SA and London. Some carrying placards bearing pictures of Bell Pottinger’s staff. Accusing the company of stoking racial tensions.

“South Africa is stronger than Bell Pottinger.”  

A political backlash has begun.

“Bell Pottinger should be put out of business for the pain and suffering caused by their immoral campaign.”

BBC Newsnight focuses on Bell Pottinger.
BBC Newsnight focuses on Bell Pottinger.

“If the Guptas are the most hated family in the country, Bell Pottinger has become the most hated company among South Africans.”  

“Stronger than Bell Pottinger.”  

A furious and sometimes threatening Twitter campaign targeted members of staff and popularised hashtags like #BellPottingermustfall.

“All of our employees have been passively targeted with death threats and huge intimidation.”

Had Bell Pottinger gone too far?

“No to racism.”  

As pressure mounted Bell Pottinger terminated their contract with the controversial Gupta family in April, after more than a year of working with them – earning £100 000 a month.

“No transparency – Bell Pottinger.”

But the protests continued. As leaked emails suggested that Bell Pottinger staff had been advising President Zuma’s son, Duduzane, who works with the Guptas at their company, Oakbay, on political messaging and speeches for movements like the ANC Youth League. Bell Pottinger was accused of orchestrating a political campaign to prop up President Zuma by blaming SA’s problems on white businesses or white monopoly capital.

“Of course, I regret that we’re in the issue that we’re in. I still believe that we did not do a lot of what we’re accused off and at no point was there an intention or did we advise on a racially motivated campaign to create discord or disharmony within SA from the proposals that I’ve seen.”

James Henderson, the Chief Executive of Bell Pottinger, has now issued what he describes as an unequivocal apology. He’s fired the person who was in charge of the account. Suspended three others and commissioned a report by the legal firm, Herbert Smith, on Bell Pottinger’s role in SA. He’s also issued a statement saying senior management had been misled about the account and that as soon as they became aware of what was being done they acted immediately.

The management of Bell Pottinger now say that they knew nothing about this.

Lord Bell: “That’s a complete lie. They knew all about it.”

From the very start?

“From the very start. From James Henderson and other people.”

Lord Bell, a former advisor to Margaret Thatcher quit the PR firm he founded last summer after a bitter feud with the current CE, James Henderson. He said one of the reasons he left was the internal row caused by the Gupta account, although James Henderson disputes even that.

“He left for a number of reasons. The Guptas and Oakbay was not one of them.”

Was it something you argued about?

“I am not going to get into Lord Bell’s and my relationship on radio.”

Read also: Revealed! Maimane nails UK PR firm Bell Pottinger, one client at a time

The relationship between the two is clearly strained and they often disagreed. Did senior management really not know about the problems with this account. Lord Bell, who was Chairman of the company, was at the very first meeting when Bell Pottinger met the Guptas.

“It became quite clear what they wanted to do was mount a campaign to encourage, what you might call, Black Economic Empowerment.”

The political nature of the campaign and the closeness of the Guptas to power were immediately obvious, according to Lord Bell.

“The first meeting I was sitting listening to Tony Gupta tell us how wonderful he was and we talked about how much he liked Zuma, how much he got on with Zuma and that he’d been accused of placing Ministers and that wasn’t true. No criticism of him was true.”

What did he say about how close he was to Zuma?

“It became pretty clear that he knew Zuma well and that he could influence what was done or he felt he could influence what was done. He didn’t say he did but he felt he could and that was pretty obvious.”

Read also: Bell Pottinger pushed SA into jaws of kleptocracy. Can we claw country back? MUST READ!

A contract was signed although Lord Bell now says that he had misgivings from early on.

“Well, it occurred to me at the very beginning there were two things wrong with the campaign. One was it was a conflict of interest, we would lose a lot of clients. Notably Richemont, Investec, and people like that and the other was that it was a very politically toxic subject. I understand that discussing race in SA compared to discussing race in Britain and it’s very toxic. I felt that it should be handled by the political team and not by the financial and corporate team, and said so when I came back.”

Was there any discussion on whether you should even be accepting the Guptas as a client?

“Yes, I mentioned to James Henderson and had a conversation of ‘the Ethics Committee’ that it was probably a bad idea. It was a controversial client. It would cost us more money and the clients we’d lose and we shouldn’t handle it.”

You talk about the Ethics Committee. Over the years you have represented a lot of very controversial fairly dubious characters. Was this different?

“I don’t think I’ve handled any dubious characters. I can defend them all and I can defend the things I did for them.”

Could you defend the Guptas?

“No, I couldn’t defend the Guptas. I thought the Guptas was a controversy too far and I said so but I was ignored by my colleagues”

Why did you think this particular case crossed the line?

“Because I could see hundreds of thousands of pounds of revenue from other clients going out the window. Nobody takes business on in order to lose other business.”

At what point do ethics come into any of this?

“I don’t know when ethics come into it. I can’t really answer about ethics. I can answer about whether he knew or didn’t know. I know that James Henderson knew what was wrong with the client from the start and all the way through and didn’t not know about the detail. He knew all the time and if Herbert Smith don’t disclose that then it will be a whitewash.”

Read also: Bell Pottinger’s full, unequivocal, absolute apology for selling Gupta lies

Lord Bell left the company last summer so any warnings he issued must have come before then, long before Bell Pottinger cut its links with the Guptas, but James Henderson questions this account. He insists that there was no Ethics Committee.

“What he actually said was that we should have had an ethics type process, which wasn’t under way before we had lost these clients. But there wasn’t an Ethics Committee, which he said that we should learn from that and there should have been an Ethics Committee.”

Did Lord Bell ever tell you that this was a controversial client who you shouldn’t represent anymore?

“He raised the issue when clients started leaving many months after we started working on the campaign. He didn’t raise the work that we were doing or the issues that were involved but he raised that it was causing concern with some clients.”

Did he suggest dropping the account?

“He raised the issues that clients had had, in terms of advising the Guptas.”

But quite specifically, did he think you should no longer work with the Guptas?

“His team continued to be involved after clients left us.”

But did he want them to be?

“After he raised, initially the concerns by clients he did not then express the view.”

Why did you ignore his concerns?

“He explained that one client had a particular issue because they didn’t like the Guptas and then that’s a matter of judgement as to whether you resign an account because one client doesn’t like them.”

Read also: People power: PR firm Bell Pottinger forced to lock tweets after SA backlash

But it wasn’t just the one client. First, in March, the asset management firm, Investec, dropped Bell Pottinger. Then Richemont, one of the biggest luxury goods companies in the world followed suite.

“I wasn’t there. The client just went out the window and Rupert wrote to me and said do you want to handle me or you can’t handle the Guptas? I wrote back and said in that case, we won’t handle the Guptas but they completely ignored my instruction. I suddenly realised, by that time that the company was not going to what I said because the other managers were making sure nobody knew about it.”

Johann Rupert the billionaire chairman of Richemont became the target of online campaigns against white monopoly capital.

Johann Rupert, founder and chairman of Cie. Financiere Richemont SA. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

“I mentioned it to people that he was upset about it and they all said, “He would be, wouldn’t he?”

Well yes, there were protests outside his house.

“I know that Johann had every reason to be very upset by what we did.”

And the company saw no conflict of interest or no problem with doing this?

“I can’t say it did.”

That’s a significant development. Objections raised by Lord Bell, when other businesses were leaving, were based on the Guptas’ reputation and allegations of corruption but now, by November, the press was full of reports about the campaign itself and its alleged link to the sudden popularity of the term ‘white monopoly capital.’

“I asked all the questions that one would expect me to ask and I was told that was not what we were doing. When Investec walked away and Johann Rupert walked away there were no accusations at any point of white monopoly capital. White monopoly capital came up many months later. At the time, they walked away the reasons that were given was they had an issue with the client we were working for. At no point was it raised about the work that we were supposedly doing or white monopoly capital. That issue came up many months later.”

Read also: Bell Pottinger white monopoly capital plot: Damning EVIDENCE of Gupta conspiracy #GuptaLeaks

But that did come up last November, at this AGM, when Johann Rupert said to the world really that you were using white monopoly capital as a campaign and he, a client, was being targeted by it. Was that not when you should have checked what was actually going on with the account?

“I did check what was going on with the account and at that point we started having conversations about whether it was appropriate to keep the account on and what we were doing. At each point, I was reassured that we were not doing this.”

What happened in those discussions, talk me through it? What were the reasons to stay when clearly, from what the media was saying, there was something uncomfortable going on with that campaign?

“The account team believed that their client was being targeted as part of a political campaign. They were defending the corporate reputation of that client and the client had not been proven guilty and, as they say, they believed their client was part of a political campaign and they were being caught up in that noise.”

At the same time, there was a report coming out on State Capture. This is an independent report by the Public Protector’s Office in SA. Showing your client having their fingerprints all over lots of very dubious deals using Government contracts. Should you not have been looking into what they were doing and what your team were doing with them?

“That’s assuming they are guilty of this corruption.”

The report certainly seemed to suggest.

“Our account team believed in their client. A lot of the issues and accusations being levelled at us they have been levelled at us in recent months, post our working for this account.”

Well, there was a real storm of them last November. You carried on working for the Guptas until April.

“And we went through, with the team, exactly what we were doing. They assured us and they produced statements. We also had legal letters going to the President of SA, where we employed media lawyers saying that we were not guilty of the things and the accusations that were being levelled at us. I still, to this day, in the report well, by this I do not believe that we were involved or that we were behind the enormity of this campaign that has been levelled at us. We, the team did run one social media Twitter account and one blog, and we are not and were not, as far as I believe, and hopefully the Herbert Smith report will show this, behind this huge social media campaign that we’ve been accused of.”

If Bell Pottinger’s role was so small and insignificant why sack the partner who was in charge of the account?

“Because when I saw the materials that were produced I believed they lacked the right objectivity and perspective necessary and particularly when we were being accused in the media and I went through on many, many occasions, whether we should be working for them. They felt that the work they were doing was corporately responsible. At no point did they share with me what they were doing and ask me for my view.”

Should you not have asked?

“I did ask and I wasn’t shown that work.”

How many clients have you lost over this?

“A number.”

For a firm who were paid to manage people’s’ reputations do you think you might have failed in managing your own?

“I think we have failed in terms of allowing ourselves to become the story in a very highly political situation.”

But as you said, you’ve had 300 members of staff receiving death threats. You have protests outside your office here, in London. In SA, Bell Pottinger is a toxic term. Have you completely mishandled this crisis?

“Well firstly, we’re in the middle of a Herbert Smith report to show exactly what we did do. The accusations that have been levelled at us, we did not single handedly manned a racially motivated campaign from the work that I’ve seen but the Herbert Smith report will underline this. I believe our role has been overly exaggerated and I’m trying to put all the steps in place to show what it is that we did do.”

Two British Polluters. More of Zapiro’s magic available at

Can Bell Pottinger survive this?

“I believe they can. I believe that the work that we did and exactly what role we had will come out in time when this report comes out and it will be quite clear that, at worst, we were very naive in what we got involved with and we’ve allowed ourselves to become a story but the actions we’ve been accused of in time, I hope it will come out that we did not do that.”

Finally, I think a lot of people who hear this will say there might have been problems and communication between you and the team. Meetings you weren’t at, things you weren’t aware of, but it’s still I can’t understand how given the huge furore out in SA. Given all the media reports. Given the fact that you had clients walking away, how you weren’t across the detail of this account. Are you being completely honest about that? Or for a CEO, for the man who’s in charge of the company was that incompetence?

“Hindsight is an easy thing. Clearly, knowing what I know now I should have been more involved. However, we have a corporate structure in place with clear reporting lines. The team didn’t report to me. I did question the team on many occasions regarding this account and clearly, seeing what I know now and how big an issue this is, I should have got more directly involved and not left it to the normal reporting structures, which we do have and which work for the vast majority of the accounts.”  

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