A revelatory and brilliant documentary by South African film makers Richard Poplak and Diana Neille will open in South Africa soon.
Called Influence, it profiles “morally slippery” British reputation manager Lord Timothy Bell as he recounts work done by his infamous public relations (PR) firm Bell Pottinger, including a campaign run for the Gupta family in 2016.
As part of the now disgraced firm’s work for the Guptas, Bell Pottinger spread a racially divisive campaign that sought to take focus off the corrupt family and place the blame for South Africa’s socioeconomic problems squarely on what it called “white monopoly capital”.
Because this accusation contains an element of truth, the campaign’s rhetoric was immensely successful and caused massive social harm before it was revealed to be a paid-for campaign.
Bell Pottinger has been described as a “PR firm for despots and rogues”, and had a reputation for working for the world’s most unsavoury characters.
Included on its client list were dictators like Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, repressive regimes including Bahrain and Egypt, and celebrities accused of despicable crimes, including our very own athlete criminal Oscar Pistorius after he was charged with murdering his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.
Bell Pottinger stepped in to polish its clients’ images by all means possible, and if doing so included sowing disinformation and/or propaganda, then so it was.
Influence doesn’t only show individual campaigns like the one the firm did for the Guptas, it makes other revelations that are sure to startle South Africans. Among them is the fact that 2016 was not the first time Bell Pottinger ran a political campaign in South Africa.
The firm had previously operated in the country in 1994 in an effort to help the National Party, under FW de Klerk, gain close to 33.3% of the vote in South Africa’s first democratic election.
Bell Pottinger created a campaign that used black-on-black violence between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party to drive fear and increase the votes for the National Party.
The documentary raises doubts about just how free and fair the 1994 elections were. How did the National Party manage to secure 20% of the vote? Were these actual votes cast or rather the outcome of an agreement?
Then there are revelations from De Klerk himself. The former president reveals that his Global Leadership Foundation offers similar advisory services to developing nations around the world.
The fact that he reveals so much is testament to the film makers’ ability to get their subjects to open up.
Bell himself perhaps thought that Influence would be an opportunity to for him to gain some sort of sympathy from viewers, but the film makers in no way romanticise or glorify his despicable actions.
Overall, Influence is an unsettling look at how vulnerable to interference modern democracies are.
“In tracking the particulars of Bell’s extraordinary life, the film examines the politicisation of modern communication over the past 40 years – the winding journey from advertising and algorithms to television and Twitter.
"Influence examines how Bell and his associates shaped and co-opted the very institutions on which our governance systems are premised, quietly entrenching one of the most sophisticated and most successful business ventures of recent times – the weaponisation of democracy.”
This is an absolute must-watch.
- Influence will have its South African premiere as the opening film for the Encounters Documentary Festival, which runs from August 20 to 30
A previous version of this article stated that "The former president reveals that his FW De Klerk offers similar advisory services to developing nations around the world", when in fact it is his Global Leadership Foundation. The error was corrected on August 17 2020.