UK government condemns Bell Pottinger for damaging its reputation in SA

Cape Town - Bell Pottinger has damaged the United Kingdom’s diplomatic reputation in South  Africa, British High Commissioner in Pretoria Nigel Casey told the UK government on Thursday.

This emerged in the House of Lords on Thursday, where Lord Peter Hain asked the House of Lord’s spokesperson to the British Cabinet’s office Lord George Young whether the UK government had any contracts with Bell Pottinger, or if it was aware of its activities in South Africa.

This follows Bell Pottinger’s expulsion this week from the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) after the Democratic Alliance lodged a complaint against it for allegedly stoking racial hatred in South Africa as part of its work for the Guptas.

Bell Pottinger CEO James Henderson, chairperson John Sunnucks and senior executive David Rydell quit following the expulsion, according to Bloomberg.

The company has reportedly put itself up for sale following its expulsion, according to Bloomberg. It hired financial adviser BDO “to look at all options regarding the future of the business”, Bell Pottinger said in a statement on Tuesday.

Young stated that the UK government had no official contracts with Bell Pottinger and had no knowledge of its activities.

“I have been in touch with our high commissioner in Pretoria this morning,” he said. “He made it very clear that this has had a very damaging impact on our country’s reputation in South Africa, which is why I have gone out of my way to make it absolutely clear that the government was in no way involved, nor indeed were the staff of the high commission’s office in any way involved in this particular contract.

“The behaviour of Bell Pottinger in South Africa has been completely unacceptable,” he said. “We support the investigation conducted by the PRCA and Herbert Freehills Smith.

“I want to put on record that at no stage was Her Majesty’s government in any way involved in their work in South Africa.”

Another lord asked whether Bell Pottinger was still on the Registrar of Lobbyists, a body that would allow the PR firm to lobby government. Young said enquiries have been made with the registrar but legislation would not allow government to strike the company off the registrar, unless it stopped being a public relations firm.

Call for UK to probe banks over Zuma and Guptas

In his follow-up question, Hain asked whether the UK government can investigate whether UK banks have had any dealings with the Guptas or President Jacob Zuma.

“Does the government agree that after running a pernicious and poisonously racist smear campaign in South Africa for the wealthy Gupta brothers, whom President Zuma has enabled to capture the state and bankroll his family and friends through corruption and cronyism, all Bell Pottinger’s work for British public bodies must be called in and reviewed?

“Since the respected former finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, has stated that the Guptas and the Zumas have benefited from R6.8bn of money laundering, can the government investigate whether any British banks are involved, what action can be taken at a European level and will the minister agree to meet me about this?”

He asked Young for a ministerial meeting to discuss the matter further.

Young said he has read the reports by the PRCA and Herbert Freehills Smith, and said they did not point to money laundering.

“The company behaved unprofessionally and unethically,” he said. “If the lord has evidence of money laundering, then of course that should be investigated. We have some of the toughest money laundering regulations in the world.

“Earlier this year, Deutsche Bank was fined £163m for breaching those regulations. If there was evidence of money laundering, then we should investigate it and I wouldn’t rule out at all a ministerial meeting with the noble lord (Hain).”

A members of the House of the Lords also suggested that Bell Pottinger should donate its profits from working for the Guptas to a charity in South Africa, echoing a call from many South Africans.

The House of Lords on Thursday ahead of the question by Lord Peter Hain regarding Bell Pottinger.

Bell Pottinger’s 'poisonous role' in SA

Hain told Bruce Whitfield on Talk Radio 702’s Money Show last week that he became more aware of the situation after teaching as a guest at Wits Business School last week.

“I have talked to a lot of people and realised how poisonous Bell Pottinger’s role has been,” he told the radio. Fake news has been their speciality. The truth has been turned upside down. I am so angry about it.”

LISTEN: Full interview with Bruce Whitfield

Co-founder Lord Timothy Bell told BBC’s Newsnight programme on Monday that the agency is unlikely to survive. “It’s probably nearing the end,” said Bell, who formed the firm in the 1980s and left last year. “You can try and rescue it but it won’t be very successful."

Bell Pottinger employs more than 240 people in offices dotting the globe, in locations including Bahrain, Kuala Lumpur and Yangon, Myanmar. They serve clients ranging from multinational businesses to governments and high-profile individuals, according to its website. The company had £33.3m in revenue in 2015, and net income of £3.3m, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

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