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As news broke on the BBC late yesterday afternoon that Bell Pottinger had been put into Administration, comedian Spike Milligan’s brilliant war memoirs came to mind.
Called Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall, the famous Goon’s 1971 bestseller was great fun from start to finish. My tale about the soon-to-be late Bell Pottinger is resplendent with Goons. But in an 18-month battle, provided few smiles. Until now.
The GuptaLeaks emails show that soon after Bell Pottinger was appointed on a £100,000 retainer, the 270-person London PR agency devised a strategy centred on a successful legal challenge against a South African media outlet.
Their idea was that by shutting up one of the critical media voices, others would become a lot more circumspect in their reporting of Gupta pillaging. Given our forthright approach to exposing the crony capitalist family’s activities, the young, independent and privately owned Biznews.com was an obvious target.
That treasure trove of leaked emails from the Gupta empire also reveal that the London agency was instructed by Atul Gupta to attack myself and Biznews “with full focus” and we were “to be made an example of”. To this end, Bell Pottinger paid its legal associate Schillings an initial £75,000 plus two more tranches of £25,000 and told to “go for the kill.”
With hindsight, the universe prepared us unusually well for the Bell Pottinger onslaught. About a year before all the legal threats began, I’d read and shared with the team insights from Ryan Holiday’s book called Trust Me I’m Lying in which he unpacks the dark art of media exploitation.
Holiday wrote it as a cathartic tell-all to expose how those on the other side of our fence manipulate news outlets. Written long before “fake news” became part of everyday language, the book was a eye opener for me. I’d always laboured under the misconception that journalism was the most honourable of professions.
The worthies who devised and executed Bell Pottinger’s strategy were so adept at these dark arts that had they read Holiday’s book, it would only have been to compare notes. They proved expert in media manipulation. Worse, in the Guptas the agency had a client with deep pockets; and in Schillings, a bounty hunting law firm eager to do its bidding.
Their gamble failed, largely because we published the bullying legal threat and saying Biznews would not bend. But also, as the leaked emails now show, because after our publication of the Schillings letter the respected Peter Bruce wrote a commentary suggesting if required, SA’s business community was likely to fund Biznews’s legal defence.
With the legal threat blunted, Bell Pottinger switched to a disgusting social media smear campaign, which could have come straight from Holiday’s playbook, where “racist” and “presstitute” were among the kinder names.
Sadly, this cue was picked up by another who has borne the brunt of our honest reporting, Gupta pal Iqbal Surve. He joined the lynch mob by launching his own misguided attacks – most recent of which was a recent full page story in all of the Independent Group newspapers where the headline accused Biznews of being “the Bell Pottinger of fake news.” The self-absorbed Surve failed to appreciate the irony.
What to learn from all this? Primarily, there is nothing more powerful than the truth. And in an Internet Age where information flows freely, the old fashioned blunt tools of the rich and powerful have lost their clout. They are no longer to be feared by those without an agenda who pursue their craft with integrity.
That reality adds to my optimism about the future of both South Africa and the world. It is no longer possible for even the most skilled propagandists to fool all of the people all of the time. Power is returning to the place where it is most deserved. Hope Springs.
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