Gup­tas’ UK spin doc­tors ‘in breach’

Sunday Express - - WORLD -

BELL Pot­tinger will be given a “dis­ci­plinary sanc­tion” by the UK’s pub­lic re­la­tions trade body over al­le­ga­tions that the lead­ing PR firm ran a se­cret cam­paign to stir up racial ten­sion in South Africa on be­half of its bil­lion­aire clients.

A Pub­lic Re­la­tions and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions As­so­ci­a­tion (PRCA) hear­ing last week heard al­le­ga­tions that Bell Pot­tinger sought to stir up anger about “white mo­nop­oly cap­i­tal” and the “eco­nomic apartheid” in South Africa to draw at­ten­tion away from the wealthy and con­tro­ver­sial Gupta fam­ily, who have been ac­cused of ben­e­fit­ing fi­nan­cially from their close links to the South African pres­i­dent, Ja­cob Zuma.

Demo­cratic Al­liance, the South African op­po­si­tion party which lodged a for­mal com­plaint with the PRCA about Bell Pot­tinger, is­sued a state­ment on Thurs­day say­ing it had re­ceived con­fir­ma­tion that the com­plaint had been up­held.

The PRCA de­clined to com­ment on what ac­tion it was con­sid­er­ing tak­ing against Bell Pot­tinger. A fi­nal de­ci­sion will be pub­lished in the week of 4 Septem­ber.

Fran­cis Ing­ham, the PRCA’s di­rec­tor gen­eral, said: “Our fi­nal de­ci­sion on this case will be made once it has been through the full and bal­anced process set out in our pro­fes­sional char­ter and codes of con­duct, in­clud­ing any ap­peals. We can’t com­ment fur­ther while the process is on­go­ing.”

The Guardian un­der­stands that the PRCA is con­sid­er­ing a range of ac­tions it could take against Bell Pot­tinger, in­clud­ing ter­mi­nat­ing its mem­ber­ship of the trade body.

Only one PR com­pany has ever had its mem­ber­ship ter­mi­nated. Other pos­si­ble dis­ci­plinary op­tions in­clude a for­mal warn­ing or rep­ri­mand.

James Hen­der­son, Bell Pot­tinger’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, was hauled be­fore the PRCA’s dis­ci­plinary com­mit­tee last week to an­swer ac­cu­sa­tions that the firm ran a “hate­ful and di­vi­sive cam­paign to di­vide South Africa along the lines of race”.

Hen­der­son told the Guardian that Bell Pot­tinger’s board was “con­sid­er­ing all op­tions” for the fu­ture of the busi­ness in the wake of the scan­dal. Those op- tions are un­der­stood to in­clude the sale of Hen­der­son’s stake in the com­pany, which would lead to his exit from the firm.

Hen­der­son de­nied ru­mours that he had re­signed. When asked whether he had of­fered to re­sign, he said: “No com­ment.”

“We are look­ing at all op­tions for the com­pany, in­clud­ing fu­ture own­er­ship,” he said.

“We are look­ing at the struc­ture of the busi­ness at this stage. As [I am] a sig­nif­i­cant share­holder you can draw your own con­clu­sions.”

He said sev­eral par­ties had ap­proached the com­pany about the pos­si­bil­ity of ac­quir­ing an own­er­ship stake.

Kevin Read, a Bell Pot­tinger part­ner, has re­signed from the PRCA’s board be­fore of its meet­ing to de­cide what sanc­tion to is­sue against the PR firm, founded by Mar­garet Thatcher’s spin doc­tor Lord Bell.

Bell Pot­tinger is ac­cused of or­ches­trat­ing the cre­ation of fake Twitter ac­counts to tar­get prom­i­nent white busi­ness­peo­ple in South Africa to draw at­ten­tion away from the Gupta fam­ily.

The Gupta’s Oak­bay com­pany was pay­ing Bell Pot­tinger £100,000 a month for its lobby and PR advice. Bell Pot­tinger can­celled the con­tract in April.

Hen­der­son is­sued an apol­ogy last month, fired Vic­to­ria Geoghe­gan, the part­ner lead­ing the Gupta ac­count, and sus­pended three other staff for the “in­ap­pro­pri­ate and of­fen­sive” so­cial me­dia cam­paign.

“Much of what has been al­leged about our work is, we be­lieve, not true – but enough of it is to be of deep con­cern,” he said.

“We wish to is­sue a full, un­equiv­o­cal and ab­so­lute apol­ogy to any­one im­pacted. These ac­tiv­i­ties should never have been un­der­taken. We are deeply sorry that this hap­pened.”

Mmusi Maimane, the leader of South Africa’s op­po­si­tion Demo­cratic Al­liance party, told the PRCA dis­ci­plinary com­mit­tee: “Bell Pot­tinger must face con­se­quences for their col­lu­sion with the Gup­tas us­ing a hate­ful and di­vi­sive cam­paign to di­vide South Africa along the lines of race.”

Maimane, who re­cently called an un­suc­cess­ful vote of no con­fi­dence in Zuma over al­le­ga­tions that he gave the Gup­tas’ com­pa­nies pref­er­en­tial ac­cess to govern­ment con­tracts, called on the PRCA to take the strong­est pos­si­ble ac­tion against Bell Pot­tinger.

“This was a co­or­di­nated cam- paign to fur­ther Gupta fi­nan­cial in­ter­ests‚ and en­sure the cap­tured ANC con­tin­ued to pro­vide lu­cra­tive con­tracts that lined Gupta pock­ets,” he said. “South Africa is not a po­lit­i­cal play­ground where in­ter­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions can dis­re­gard ethics to turn a profit. Bell Pot­tinger’s un­eth­i­cal com­pli­ance in these projects is un­ac­cept­able and the Demo­cratic Al­liance has taken steps to en­sure they are held to ac­count.”

Hen­der­son said he and other se­nior man­agers had been mis­led about the ac­tiv­i­ties be­ing car­ried out in South Africa.

But Bell, who quit the firm last year in part be­cause of con­cerns about work­ing for the Gup­tas, said he had raised con­cerns with the com­pany’s ethics com­mit­tee.

Bell, who has pre­vi­ously rep­re­sented the Pinochet Foun­da­tion, Syria’s first lady, Asma al-As­sad, and the gov­ern­ments of Bahrain and Egypt, told the BBC that work­ing for the Gup­tas was a “po­lit­i­cally toxic con­tract” and warned that it could lose other clients.

Bell Pot­tinger has lost some of its big­gest clients, in­clud­ing the South African in­vest­ment bank In­vestec, the South African tourism board, the Lon­don-listed, African-fo­cused miner Aca­cia, and Richemont, the lux­ury goods com­pany that owns Cartier and Mont­blanc and is con­trolled by the South African bil­lion­aire Jo­hann Ru­pert.

Maimane has writ­ten to other clients call­ing on them to drop the agency. “Though le­gal ac­tion is ef­fec­tive‚ cor­po­ra­tions re­spond to their bot­tom line faster than they do to judges‚” he said. — Guardian

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