Downing St fury at boast of influence over PM

Register of lobbyists back on agenda after secret filming claims to show Bell Pottinger offering political influence


What's happened? Senior employees of the PR and lobbying company Bell Pottinger have been filmed claiming to have access to the very heart of British government in a sting by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ), published by The Independent today. Managing Director Tim Collins (above) is seen describing the firm's supposed influence on Cabinet ministers, even claiming he got Prime Minister David Cameron to talk to the Chinese government on behalf of a client. Undercover reporters who posed as representatives of the Uzbekistan government were told the country's reputation could be "laundered" to conceal human rights abuses.

What does it mean?

The report comes at a time when the Government is under pressure to deal with the "grey area" of lobbyists. Downing Street has rubbished the BIJ story, saying "It is simply not true that Bell Pottinger or any other lobbying company has any influence on government policy". But Bell Pottinger personnel have demonstrably close links with the Conservatives. Tim Collins was John Major's press secretary and a Conservative MP for eight years, while company chairman Lord (Timothy) Bell has been an influential adviser and served as one of Margaret Thatcher's chief strategists. According to the BIJ, the company has contributed almost £12,000 to the Conservative party in the past year. The links are potentially embarrassing in the light of the firm's willingness to promote dubious clients, a service the Independent article describes as "reputation laundering".

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The film shows David Wilson, chairman of Bell Pottinger PR, describing their work for the Sri Lankan government. This included scripting President Mahinda Rajapaksa's 2010 speech to the UN in which he described the bloody crackdown on Tamils as a "humanitarian" intervention, as well as placing articles in western media delivering the same message. According to the Independent's report, when Tim Collins met undercover reporters posing as representatives of the Uzbek government, he offered to use "dark arts" to bury any negative publicity. The Uzbek government is ranked among the worst human rights abusers in the world; it is believed to practise execution by boiling. The Independent reports comes two months after the Fox-Werrity affair in October, when former Defence Secretary Liam Fox eventually resigned after revelations about his relationship with lobbyist Adam Werrity. In the same month, the Guardian reported that Conservative MP Mark Field was being paid by a pro-Azerbaijan lobby group. The BIJ sting highlights the fact that the Government has not addressed the issue of reforming regulations for lobbyists. Firm proposals for a statutory register of lobby groups were promised for November but have not been delivered, despite David Cameron's admission last year that "lobbying has tainted our politics for too long" and that the issue "exposes the cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money". What's next? Pressure will grow on the Government to introduce the register and some sort of disciplinary process for anyone on the list who goes over the top with promises of influence. "We need reform to ensure that there is no question of the rich and powerful buying access to the Prime Minister and his advisers", said shadow Cabinet Office Minister John Trickett today. Labour MP John Cryer will ramp up the pressure this afternoon when he seeks backing for a private member's bill setting up a commercial lobbying register.

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Kieron Monks is a freelance journalist currently working for He is associate editor of This Week in Palestine.