Tim Bell has been moving to the centre all his life. For a man who was Lady Thatcher’s PR guru, this would be sensational news except that the movement has been geographic rather than political. “As my career progressed,” he says with a laugh, “I have worked my way from north London to the centre,” from a Norman Shaw house in Frognal Lane, Hampstead, to a Belgravia town house.
Thatcher lives round the corner, Yehudi Menuhin used to be the residents’ spokesman and a few doors away is a house that fooled an entire generation of television viewers into believing they were witnessing events from a police station in the East End of London. Now a private residence, then it was London’s most famous police station. “The Queen Mother,” explains Lord Bell, “used to give it the prize for being the prettiest police station every year for God knows how long. And Jack Warner stood outside it in Dixon of Dock Green, [a British TV series that ran from 1955 to 1976].”
Bell’s sitting room on the first floor overflows with books: on the shelves, on the tables. This is where he reads and many of the books tell the story of his life and times: first editions dedicated to him by Thatcher, Cecil Parkinson and Jeffrey Archer. My eye is caught by Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographs of India and Bell tells me a story that shows the pull India still has on the British, even the Iron Lady.
Bell went to India accompanying Mrs Thatcher to meet another iron lady, India’s prime minister Indira Gandhi. “The Queen had had a Christmas message done in India. The light in India is fantastic and Margaret Thatcher was fascinated. She said, ‘Why can’t we do all our photography in India?’ I had to remind her she was the British prime minister not the Indian prime minister.” That story does not feature in The Iron Lady in which Meryl Streep plays Thatcher, a film Bell has no plans to see as it will not “make any difference to her legacy”.
Bell is not affected by his surroundings. Buying the house and almost everything in it was the work of his wife Virginia. More than a quarter of a century ago, she fell in love with the house the moment she saw it and made an offer. The house was then owned by Irwin Stelzer, an economist close to Rupert Murdoch, another of Bell’s clients. So did this make the purchase easier? Virginia, who has just brought me mint tea and biscuits laughs, “What do you think?”
The house required a lot of work and the room we are in was originally two but has been knocked together. On the wall opposite hangs a Dutch painting, “It is a nice picture of a dog,” says Bell, as he strokes his Labrador Tippy (short for Tippex). “The painting amuses me. I like things. I do not attach any great value to material objects. The interior design is entirely down to my wife and her choice of pictures is a funny mixture of the traditional and modernity.” This is borne out by the pictures at the far end of the room depicting 18th-century life. “I take a very simple view,” says Bell, “My wife has impeccable taste, so why bother to compete with her?”
This hands-off approach reflects how Bell sees his work, “I am an adviser, not a decision maker. I am not at the centre of things, only on the periphery.”
Bell accepts that in advising clients, ranging from Thatcher to Thai politician Thaksin Shinawatra and Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, he has made enemies. This now includes the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and “The Independent” newspaper, which last month published a damaging story about his company.
Reporters from the bureau secretly filmed Bell Pottinger executives boasting about the firm’s access at the highest level of the British government. This extended through foreign secretary William Hague to getting David Cameron, the prime minister, to speak to the Chinese premier on behalf of one of its business clients within 24 hours of asking him to do so. A Cameron spokesman quickly denied any such influence had been exerted.
The way the reporters had gone about their task has clearly upset Lord Bell. “I am not a believer in statutory press regulation but this was not ethical journalism. This is why we are having the Leveson inquiry into the press. Here we have reporters posing to be something they are not [the reporters posed as agents for the government of Uzbekistan and representatives of its cotton industry]. Where is the public interest? The reporters’ agenda was to push for statutory regulation of lobbyists. But what defines a lobbyist? A poll showed that two-thirds of MPs would not be able to do their work if there were no lobbyists.”
Bell was involved with further controversy recently when an internal Wikipedia investigation found that 19 accounts, traced to Bell Pottinger’s offices, had been using fake identities to edit pages. As a result Bell Pottinger held a seminar with Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia co-founder as reported in the FT on January 13. “We both agreed,” Bell told me, “to make the system work better. It was clear neither of us understood the system. What we were doing was being done by other agencies and what we did was nothing wrong.”
As he takes me up the flight of stairs to his bedroom, we pass a painting of aborigines. Virginia comes from Sydney. “She bought it to remind her of her homeland,” says Bell.
The bedroom is dominated by the work of an Australian who has had influence on all of our lives: Rupert Murdoch. The TV set and Sky box almost cover an entire wall.
Bell has been advising Rebekah Brooks, the former chief executive of News International. He says: “The phone hacking scandal will not be terminal for either Rupert or the press. It will make life difficult for a while. The press will survive. Britain is a nation of gossips. It needs its gossips to feed off.”
Reflecting on his career, Bell says: “My life has been a series of opportunities, which I have taken advantage of. I have had a very nice time and am very lucky. What I have done in my career is what Jacob Bronowski said, ‘Do what you want to do every day and be paid for it.’ There are bad days and good days but the good days outnumber the bad days by a considerable amount.”
And while Bell will always be associated with Thatcher, for him the best of days came “helping F.W. de Klerk in the first post-apartheid election in South Africa because a great evil was removed”.
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This portrait of Bell’s wife Virginia by Howard Morgan hangs on the ground floor landing. Done for Virginia’s 40th birthday, it made their son Harry ask, “Why is mummy in outer space?”
Bell also cites his two Labradors Tippy and Lola, 18 months old. Bell has always owned Labradors. “I like independent dogs. They know their minds.”
He also mentions the Sky box in the bedroom. “Rupert Murdoch bet the house on Sky and came through. Mrs Thatcher wanted to reform the BBC but didn’t have time,” he recalls.