London’s Myth Making Cockroaches

August 3, 2010

Sometimes its just embarrassing to live in London (witness Boris Johnson’s hideously overpriced bike-hire scheme that has appeared on the city’s streets this week). But sometimes, its excruciating.

The Guardian has a damning article today (headlined “PR firms make London world capital of reputation laundering”) which reports that “the capital’s public relations firms are earning millions of pounds a year promoting foreign regimes with some of the world’s worst human rights records, including Saudi Arabia, Rwanda, Kazakhstan and Sri Lanka.”

This is hardly new, while it remains scandalous, yet it is also worth stressing that London is hardly alone in burnishing the images of tyrants. U.S. firm Hill and Knowlton, for example, is another serial offender. That being so, the fact that PR firms with close ties to ex-Prime Ministers (“Portland PR, headed by Tim Allen, Tony Blair’s former deputy press secretary”) and the Tory Party (“Chime plc, headed by Lord Bell, Margaret Thatcher’s former adviser”) is profoundly humiliating for anyone with a passing interest in British democracy.

You’d think that with private firms running around dispensing style advice to the Chinese government, or Uganda’s dictatorship, politicians might want to do something to improve the image of London and the UK in the eyes of those who oppose tyranny.

You’d be sadly naive. The PR “industry” (to liken it to manufacturing is somewhat surreal, and I’d prefer “racket” or “circus”) feels very little heat from those in power. Cushy connections and a general lack of commitment to human rights provides a potent combination, and even when politicians actually say they oppose such activity, they are loathe to call for action.

Step forward Labour MP and member of the Commons culture, media and sport select committee, Paul Farrelly. Presumably in conversation with the Guardian, Farrelly opines that “More and more PR firms are moving from representing companies to representing countries, whatever their records” and that “PR companies should take an ethical stance rather than the first shilling that is on offer” while “Any self-respecting professional should ask themselves if this is a regime they should be representing.”

Come off it Mr Farrelly! Why not call for regulation of these scumbags? To say that PR firms should act morally lets them totally off the hook. Tyrannical governments should act morally, as should Labour MPs on influential select committees. Farrelly should be leading a Commons campaign to turn non-binding “codes of conduct” (a common ruse used by vile corporate abusers) into a workable law so that we can sue Bell Pottinger for putting a shiny gloss on Sri Lankan war crimes.

As an aside, one example of how PR firms twist reality to portray murderous regimes in a favourable light is Rwanda (where opposition politicians and their lawyers are regularly locked up or murdered). When the Rwandan foreign minister visited London recently,  journalists were treated to the spectacle of  “a fake Rwandan village hut and leafed through glossy brochures promoting the country’s famous gorilla trails.”

The Rwandan government is peddling an utterly mythical vision of Africa that could be lifted from early twentieth century imperial Exhibitions, replete as they were with model savage villages and menageries. Given the fact that European and American firms profit mightily from Rwandan coffee production, arms exports and perhaps, mineral resources, the lineaments of imperialism are all too clear to see.

Ironically, and sadly, the Rwandan government has been using London’s PR vultures to portray itself as a nation struggling against “destabilizing” forces to stage elections that will allow it to consolidate an independent identity.

In reality, the identity being produced reflects the concerns of foreigners and the business elite in Kigali. As Ivo Gabara, a PR consultant for the Kazakh government interviewed by the Guardian puts it, “If you are managing a client’s reputation, whether individual, company or country, it is the Anglo-Saxon media that matters and particularly the London-based media…Coverage in the US is important but what is said out of London will determine your global reputation.”

Unfortunately, the global reputation of London is plummeting due to the disgusting actions of firms like Bell Pottinger. It’s important to remember that this is not purely about boosting tyrants. Corporations are often in need of assistance, wily assistance of a kind that only London PR firms appear able to provide.

Bell Pottinger, for example, has been representing the disgraced oil trader Trafigura, which dumped a lethal load of toxic ballast onto waste pits in the Ivory Coast, as well as the Indonesian palm oil exporter Sinar Mas, which has been savagely condemned by recent Greenpeace investigations as an ecological criminal.

Wanderers around London are rarely aware of the power that such firms wield in creating myths that kill, but the activity of the PR junket is truly appalling. Defenders of such activity might say that regulation would be a free speech issue (ironically given the willingness of their clients to block such speech, but never mind). Yet freedom of speech is not the issue here.

PR firms do not allow people to speak. They allow people to purchase a certain quality of speech and a vigilance concerning such things as brand integrity (ugh). And they also allow those with money to speak louder, with greater access to the media and, hence, the public. Activists who lack such means are easily drowned out, unless they wage skillful campaigns of their own, which often succeed owing to the manifest rightness of their causes and the fortitude of their supporters.

There is no reason why such firms should be allowed to act as they do, and escape regulation. What would be even better is media reform which makes it easier for activists and dissidents in foreign countries to counter the power of their oppressors. More knowledge of countries like Rwanda – about which most Britons know very little – might be a useful antidote to corporate myth making. But until then, regulation is imperative.

I look forwards to figures like Paul Farrrelly taking up the challenge.

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3 Responses to “London’s Myth Making Cockroaches”

  1. Watsonlow Says:

    How would you legislate? What is the crime? It might be immoral to make money from telling lies, but it is not against the law. Who are the victims? Well, in one of the cases you mention it is the common people of Rwanda, but I don’t know how you would make that stand up in a court. And where do you draw the line? Every newspaper distorts the truth. PR companies present a false image of their clients. Unless you can identify the victim you have no crime. Stieg Larsson’s trilogy has a government agency mounting a PR campaign to wrongfully imprison the heroine. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

  2. watsonlow Says:

    Can you provide a list of governments which abuse human rights? Would you include the UK and the US which both have well documented cases? Might there be some mileage in using existing laws to challenge the erroneous statements made by PR companies, and newspapers come to that? If you can identify the victims you have a case. I would love to see the Daily Mail sued by 100,000 immigrants in a class action. The case might rest on the intimidation engendered by the newspaper’s campaign. It would undoubtedly fail but it would at least be putting up a fight.


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