There's no such thing as dirty money

When it comes to revamping a damaged image, be it a bloody dictator or a shady businessman, they all turn to certain companies to help polish away their sullied reputations, thus making PR the weapon of mass distraction.

­­The influence of PR companies in distorting the truth is well-known. In the notorious Hollywood movie “Wag the Dog”, a PR agent engineers a war to distract public attention from the president’s philandering.

And sometimes, truth is stranger and much more damaging than fiction.

“Spin has been crucial in Middle Eastern politics for many years. I mean, spin is what took Britain into the Iraq war for example,”
shares former MI5 agent Annie Machon. “You know, these headlines about weapons of mass destruction and deployment within 45 minutes.”

PR industry experts reckon the majority of the Arab states in turmoil – Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya – have some kind of representation in a London PR firm, and the reason they come to London is lack of regulation.

In the US, if a PR company takes on a foreign government as a client, it has to register the fact with the Department of Justice. In the UK, there’s no such rule.


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­If you’re a foreign government looking for representation in London, look no further than Bell Pottinger. Although very cagey about who its clients are, it’s believed to represent the governments of Bahrain, Belarus, and exiled Russian tycoon Boris Berezovksy. The firm has also been writing to journalists in recent days on behalf of a member of the Libyan royal family, and it almost certainly represents governments elsewhere in the region.

Bell Pottinger declined to give RT an interview for this story, but in the past they have assured RT that PR can influence questionable regimes for the better.

“A country frequently will modify its action and its policies in order to achieve perhaps what’s sometimes seen as the greater ambition of having better relations with whoever they’re looking to influence and so on – so it’s a balance,” believes David Wynne Morgan, Director at Pelham Bell Pottinger.

But that doesn’t always happen. Libya, for one, has used London’s PR machine before – with misleading results.

“In 1995, a UK based PR agency was paid four million pounds to try and subvert the evidence that pointed towards Libyan involvement in the Lockerbie case,” remembers Annie Machon. “And this is what has led to alternative theories about Lockerbie, although the evidence did point to the fact that Al Maghrahi and Laman Khalifa Fhimah were actually responsible. So Libya knows how to play by these rules, they know how to play the game.

And it’s transparency that’s lacking in British PR. Information appears in the media, but people have no idea who put it there.

Independent PR consultant Nick Allan says “The only way one can be really sure about all the info we’re being bombarded with on a daily basis is where does it come from and is that person partial or impartial, and in that way we get a much clearer idea about what it is we’re being told.”

Although there is a new body in the UK designed to regulate the PR industry, declaring clients is still voluntary.

London’s Soho is the heart of the PR industry in the capital, where images are burnished and the unpalatable becomes palatable. London’s top PR firms are known to be working undeclared for some of the world’s most unpopular regimes, but their expertise could be being used to shape the future political landscape of a vulnerable region.