“Everyone’s entitled to put their point of view across,” says Lord Bell, reclining at his desk near London’s Sloane Square, with three buttons of a white shirt undone and a dozen cigarette butts in the ashtray beside him.
The founder and chair of Bell Pottinger is the UK’s most controversial PR man. Once a link between Margaret Thatcher and the media, he offered advice in support of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian president of Belarus. Today Bell Pottinger has nearly 500 clients. High-profile figures it has represented recently include the journalist Rebekah Brooks (innocent of phone-hacking) and entertainer Rolf Harris (guilty of sex offences).
Has he ever said no to a prospective client? “I said no to Mugabe, I said no to the Labour party, I said no to six of the Russians that were being sanctioned [by the EU]. I only take on clients I think I can do a job for,” he says.
This week Lord Bell published Right or Wrong, the story of his ascent into public relations. It is labelled a “working memoir”, a genre that probably translates as “I’m not dying yet”. He describes his route through advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi and into Thatcher’s inner circle, before running his own communications businesses. “Some of the things I’ve done have been terrible, but I find them very funny,” he says.
The book contains fleeting mentions of divorce, depression and cancer. But it is mainly an ode to Thatcherism, underlining Lord Bell’s role as the most political of British advisers. Under Thatcher, he could open doors in the corridors of power. But now he portrays himself almost as an outsider, nostalgic for different times.
He has joyous memories of an age when nepotism was an acceptable career catalyst. (“If you want to help the people around you and help the people close to you, so what?”) An age when a female job applicant might be judged by her breasts. An age when, to raise fears of Japanese takeovers, it was deemed acceptable to create a figure with narrow eyes.
Politics and business seem incompatible when Lord Bell talks about the banking community in our interview. “They’re all complete criminals. The whole bloody lot,” he says. Might expressing such a caustic opinion of bankers not unnerve Bell Pottinger’s financial sector clients, such as Investec and TPG? “That’s the problem, you see, you’re not allowed to tell the truth. Isn’t that disgusting?”
Bankers are only one of many frustrations. Another problem is the media’s “addiction” to apologies. “We never tell clients to apologise,” he says. “We often tell clients to acknowledge that they’ve made mistakes, that they’ve delivered a bad service.”
Lord Bell also has little time for the nanny state (“I smoke as much as possible”), and anything vaguely high-tech. His company was once caught covertly editing clients’ Wikipedia pages, but he wields an old Nokia. “I want a mobile phone. I don’t want a mobile computer,” he says. He condemns modern society with a stream of expletives; his book calls Twitter “the end of civilisation”.
Alongside his rival, Sir Alan Parker, founder of Brunswick, he used the corporate battles of the 1980s to supercharge the PR industry. “We agreed to charge proper fees. He charges more than me now, he didn’t then.”
In the UK Brunswick, with estimated annual revenues of £46m, is now considerably bigger than Bell Pottinger, which Lord Bell and a business partner took private two years ago in a management buyout. Has the penchant for pariahs hurt the business’s mainstream appeal? On the contrary, Lord Bell argues, for 15 years his old group Chime Communications was number one.
“Brunswick were never anywhere. They’ve tried to do government relations and failed. They’ve tried to go to America and failed,” he suggests. “[Alan Parker] befriended all the banks, the advisers and the parasites who live in the middle of these transactions. I didn’t – I worked for the client.” Brunswick, which has four US offices, declined to comment.
Not that he always took the client’s interests too seriously, particularly when they disregarded his advice, as Jacques Chirac did in the 1988 French election. “Mitterrand walked it and Chirac lost again. But at least we got our fees,” he writes.
As with all PR men, it is unclear whether Lord Bell’s influence is over- or underestimated. Right or Wrong does not reveal much of his art, apart from his close contacts with the editors of the Sun and the Daily Mail. His eight rules of crisis management (see box) are unremarkable, but that may be the point.
“I don’t think I’m a genius. I think I’m a perfectly normal person who uses common sense.” Has the game changed? “Persuasion works the same way it always has done.”
Lord Bell’s biggest weapon is his self-assurance. How much responsibility does he bear for the poll tax, the flagship policy that was Thatcher’s greatest PR disaster? “None whatsoever. I wasn’t responsible for government policy.”
Does he really believe – as Right or Wrong says – that Salvador Allende burnt Chile’s electoral rolls? Many historical sources say it was Pinochet’s military junta, I point out. “No, it wasn’t. It was Allende. He was a Marxist,” he says. Anyway, “I never met Pinochet. Actually I did meet him for 10 minutes.”
Does he regret representing Mr Lukashenko, who promised to allow fair elections then didn’t? “When I worked in Belarus, I spent most of the time with the British high commissioner to Belarus picking my brain to find out what Lukashenko was doing.”
Such self-confidence has unnerved Lord Bell’s own clients. Right or Wrong details how Chris Patten, then the Conservative party’s head of research, objected to several proposed Saatchi & Saatchi ads on the basis that they were factually incorrect. The agency’s most famous poster – “Labour Isn’t Working” – was approved despite Tory murmurs that their own policies would increase unemployment further. Nonetheless, Thatcher trusted him. “She used to call me ‘the man on the Clapham omnibus’. She used to think I was in touch with ordinary folk, God knows why,” he says.
Three decades after his political heyday, Lord Bell’s electoral diagnosis has an appealing simplicity. “When you’re in opposition the only argument you’ve got is that it’s time for a change,” he says.
This is what makes the next election in the UK so interesting, he says. “Whatever happens there’s going to be a change. So nobody’s going to be able to do ‘it’s time for a change’ and nobody’s going to be able to do ‘it’s no time for a change’.” Someone might even ask for his campaigning advice.
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