Lord Bell on spin, Thatcher and the demise of Bell Pottinger
Six months ago, his eponymous PR firm collapsed amid scandal and infamy. Here, the King of Spin gives his first interview since the end of Bell Pottinger
Lord Bell is sitting opposite me in his impeccable Belgravia townhouse, his glasses balancing halfway down his nose. There is an ashtray placed on the marble mantelpiece to his right, and he reaches carefully for it every time he pulls a cigarette from the packet with a thumb and forefinger, which he does exactly 14 times during our 90-minute interview.
To say that Lord Bell smokes like a chimney would be unfair to chimneys. (Indeed, compared to Lord Bell’s habits, your average fireplace is something of a social smoker, a weekend dilettante.) But it’s also unfair to Lord Bell. The man does not smoke like a chimney — he smokes likes a bloody professional, thank you very much. The considered puff, the billow of Benson & Hedges, the glacial tap into the ashtray — these are as much a part of Lord Bell’s professional image as his black-rimmed glasses and his low and gravelled voice.
In fact, when Lord Bell was inducted into the PR Hall of Fame in 2016, he was cited by the committee as an “Unreconstructed Thatcherite, unreformed smoker and a man never afraid to speak his politically incorrect mind.” Each of these is indivisible from the others.
When I sent the transcript of our interview away to be typed up verbatim, it returned punctuated with an odd annotation: “[gentle puffing sound]”. This, I realised, marked every point when Lord Bell took a drag of his cigarette, and, more often than not, every time he uttered a sentence that was worth underlining in red pen and starring in the margin. And the margin is filled with stars.
For almost 50 years, Lord Bell has been a man not so much on the fringes of history but in its wings; a string-puller-in-chief to the most powerful figures in this country and around the world; Iago in spectacles. A rundown of Bell’s career highlights is accompanied by a sprinkling of asides on his various co-conspirators, adversaries, bosses and successors.
From the Saatchi brothers, who gave him his first job in communications (“Charles wasn’t nice; he was a very frustrated man”), to Tony Blair (“A very clever man, but very wrong”), George Osborne (“We go to the same hairdresser”) and even exiled Russian businessman Boris Berezovsky (“I had lunch with him two days before his death: Boris was killed”) — all have drifted into Bell’s orbit.
The most telling asides, of course, are reserved for the woman with whom his career was intertwined during what he describes as the “golden days”: Margaret Thatcher. Lord Bell is roundly acknowledged as the mastermind of the Iron Lady’s three successive general election victories, and, in the process, as the creator of modern spin as we know it.
“I didn’t invent Thatcher, as people like to believe,” Lord Bell begins, peering over the top of his glasses. “And I would never have told her to how to wear her hair, or what clothes to wear. It wasn’t in our agreement.” But the rest of the folklore checks out. “We had big successes. I kept her straight, and reminded her of her principles.” And then, sensing a follow-up: “Her principles, by the way. Not my principles. It was always about doing the right thing.”
His adversaries would beg to differ. “Apparently I’ve always had controversial views,” Bell says. “I’ve had so much filth thrown at me at one point or another.” The top-ranked comments on a YouTube video of Lord Bell talking to Jeremy Paxman describe Bell variously as a “truly dangerous man”, “a pompous scoundrel” and a “sick two-faced liar.”
The Guardian, meanwhile, has painted him as the saviour of “dodgy regimes” and his eponymous agency, Bell Pottinger, as the “unacceptable face of PR”. The muck is thrown from rivals, too: “A lot of people have tried to write his obituary,” says Mark Borkowski, a PR historian. “But they underestimate his steely determination.”
Still, shouldn’t the master of spin have a slightly spiffier public image? “You end up looking after your own reputation by allowing people to say things — even if they have the wrong conclusion, even if it’s false,” he explains. “If it suits you, you say it’s right. Even if it’s wrong. I’ve been given credit for so many things I didn’t do.”
All this, Bell writes in Right or Wrong, his autobiography, is simply an occupational hazard of the type of work he happens to be so good at: managing reputations, spinning the narrative, defending the indefensible, from Neil Hamilton to David Mellor.
“I really enjoyed working with people like them,” Bell writes. “But the downside was that I often became a target by association.” A good thing, then, that Bell has long managed “not to give a fuck about what people think of me”. Can this really be true?
“I’m not interested in ‘phoney’. I’m not interested in a false image. And everyone who knows me thinks I’m a very nice person, a very kind person.” Some more gentle puffing. “I’m known as a gentleman. But when I say I don’t care what people think about me, that’s a defence mechanism.”
It is one that will have been robustly tested in recent months. In September last year, Bell Pottinger, the monolithic PR consultancy established by Bell in 1998, came crashing down in the space of just a few tumultuous weeks. His critics would say it died as it lived — in the grey areas between right and wrong; as a reputation-launderer for the filthy rich and powerful.
Clients in Bell Pottinger’s golden period include the controversial government of Sri Lanka; Asma al-Assad, the wife of the tyrannical president of Syria; Editor Rebekah Brooks in the heat of the phone-hacking scandal; Alexander Lukashenko, the dictator of Belarus; Oscar Pistorius in the wake of his murder charge; disastrous oil conglomerate Trafigura; the fracking company Cuadrilla.
All these Lord Bell shakes off with a world-weary shrug: “Everyone deserves the right to representation.” But wouldn’t life have been simpler if he hadn’t taken on such clients? “Perhaps. But it also would have been less interesting.”
And then everything got far too interesting far too quickly. In September 2017, Bell Pottinger was expelled by the PRCA (the PR industry’s governing body) for gross misconduct and for bringing the business “into disrepute” following a campaign for the Guptas, the controversial family with dubiously close ties to South African president Jacob Zuma. Under the PR firm’s stewardship, the Guptas’ Oakbay Investments had stoked up racial tensions in the country with debate over a new “economic apartheid”. One heavy-handed strategy involved the viral hashtag “#WhiteMonopolyCapital.”
“They were using black and white. I know that country, and black and white is a terrible thing,” says Bell. “That was a great, big error of judgement.” Johann Rupert, the South African chairman of the Swiss-based luxury goods behemoth Richemont, wrote to Bell as soon as he got wind of the campaign. “He said: ‘You can’t work for the Guptas and me,’” Bell remembers. “So I said: ‘Well, in that case I won’t work for the Guptas.’” But here, he claims, he was overruled by James Henderson, Bell Pottinger’s CEO. “I had no authority anymore. James had undermined my authority by using money.”
Lord Bell resigned in April 2016 after a stroke and Mark Smith took over as acting chairman until August 2016 when Bell’s resignation was officially announced. The main reason for the resignation, he tells me, was because his colleagues refused to listen to him about the “smelly” air around the account.
They should have done. By the time the Gupta controversy had reached its peak, and a cachet of emails was leaked to the Times, the shareholders had abandoned Bell Pottinger in their droves — most giving away their shares for nothing — and the PRCA impressed on the firm the strictest sanctions it could muster: a five year ban from the industry. Not that the company could possibly see out its sentence. Within days it had fallen into administration, its 250 members of staff made instantly redundant.
“I didn’t want to see my company die. Good people worked there,” Bell says. “I left it making a fine profit. Then James Henderson ruined the company.” Does Bell hate Henderson for Bell Pottinger’s demise? “Hate is too strong,” Bell muses. “I dislike him. He’s a conman. He’s a slimy person, and he divides and rules, and uses any manner of technical jargon.”
The rot had set in four years earlier, Bell says, when Henderson was first brought in. The pair clashed over management styles. “I became exhausted from being right, and him being wrong. He was obsessed with running a big company. He even hired a human resources director for £250,000 a year! I like small companies, not big companies, where you need to talk to people. I was always cracking jokes. That was my style. James destroyed morale. Most of my jokes fall flat now.”
This is not the Lord Bell that is depicted in the press. For 25 years until the mid-nineties, Bell refused to do media interviews, fuelling his Master of the Dark Arts mystique by remaining in the shadows. Even when he began to open up, the press portrayed him as Spin Incarnate — slicked-back hair, power ties, charcoal suits with establishment chalk stripes.
Today, sitting in an armchair in his home, Lord Bell is gentler, more self-effacing and reflective than I had expected to find him. He wears a polo shirt beneath an old navy cashmere blazer, and black suede Belgian loafers: a soft-shelled choice better suited to padding around the house than kicking down doors. As we prepare to take his portrait, Lord Bell’s wife, Jacky, dusts some cigarette ash off his lapel, and for a moment the man looks much older than his 76 years.
As Bell Pottinger fell in on itself, its founding partner could do little but look on in horror. “I watched it unfold in The Times every day. It was insane,” he says. “They owed me three and a half million pounds, and they didn’t pay the last three months because they’d gone bankrupt. I wrote to their chairman three times and said: ‘You’re going to run out of money soon; do you think you can pay me my money now?’ He ignored me, and this was a man I’d worked with for 35 years.”
Worse was to come. On 4th September, a day after James Henderson was forced to resign as CEO with, in Bell’s words, “a pathetic apology”, Lord Bell was invited onto the BBC’s Newsnight. The interview was a disaster.
“They set me up,” Bell reveals. “I thought it was a positive conversation; I didn’t know that they were going to ambush me.” Host Kirsty Wark produced an email that claimed that Bell had in fact endorsed the Gupta account after his initial meeting. “I was stitched up. They were given the email by James Henderson,” Bell claims.
To make matters worse, his phone went off twice during the live interview. One of the interruptions was a text from Johann Rupert. “He said, ‘Thank you for being the only honourable person in this whole story.’” The second was a call from Francis Ingham, Director General of the PRCA. “Francis said: ‘Are you pleased with what we’ve done?’ He knew I wanted to see Henderson fall.”
The headline-writers had a field day: the PR faux pas by the PR guru. But was that all part of his plan, I wonder? To take the story away from the alleged wrongdoing and on to the man himself? To frame himself as an inept technophobe who could barely handle an iPhone, let alone mastermind a divisive racial campaign? Lord Bell laughs. “No, I didn’t arrange it. It was out of the blue.” And then he adds: “I don’t give a damn about it. The South Africans — they all think I’m a very nice man.”
Under this bluster lies a desire to be liked. “Margaret [Thatcher] told me I could choose money or fame, but not both,” Bell recalls. “I wanted fame. Charles Saatchi wanted money, but I enjoyed recognition.” Bell achieved his aim when he was knighted by a departing Thatcher in 1991, and later when he was created Lord Bell, Baron Bell of Belgravia, in 1998. “They’re all obvious achievements in one way or another,” he observes, but with a shrug that makes me suspect he doesn’t much care for establishment baubles. Still, he’s a fully paid-up member of the establishment now. Did he ever use that high-level access in his day-to-day work?
“I know most of the royals — Prince Philip, Charles, Andrew…” he says. “I’ve never, ever used them, though. That was James [Henderson’s] thing. He was jealous of me. He wanted to be best pals with anybody. He goes for the wrong clients — Fergie. She never pays her bills, and she never does anything you tell her. But James hangs around her because he tells her how great she is, and that her children are lovely.” A beat. “They’re not.”
In February 2018, Henderson announced he was forming a new PR advisory, J&H Communications.“I’ve absolutely nothing to hide,” Henderson wrote in the press release. “I just want to rebuild a business.”
Lord Bell scoffs. “He won’t be allowed to. He’s utterly discredited.”
The next act in Lord Bell’s own career will revolve around Sans Frontières, the PR consultancy he helped to set up after his resignation from Bell Pottinger. “But I’m basically retired. I help them, I make my diagnosis,” he explains. “But I’m an old man.”
In recent years, Bell has had a triple-heart bypass and a minor stroke. Does he ever worry about his health? About death? “I had a body scan six months ago, and I’m completely free of any cancer. So I’m not going to do anything, am I?
“All this, it makes me look much more fondly on the golden days,” he continues. “There was Thatcher: that made me the most famous PR man in the world. I still think about her daily, and meet people who knew her all the time. I knew her intimately, what she was about, her guiding principles.” (While we’re on the subject: what might Thatcher say to Theresa May and the current Conservative administration? “She’d say: ‘Pull your socks up. Don’t just sit there waffling. Come on — do something!”)
“The other golden period was with Bell Pottinger,” Lord Bell remembers. “I had a great deal of fun, and I think the people around me had a great deal of fun. The other day, somebody I used to work with said: ‘I’m just reading your book, and those were the best days of my life.’ Well, that’s something, at least.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article, published in Gentleman’s Journal May/June issue, incorrectly stated that Lord Bell had endorsed Bell Pottinger’s Oakbay account at a later date than he had previously claimed. Gentleman’s Journal has seen emails contradicting this and would like to apologise for the mistake.