How Fin24 exposed Bell Pottinger last year already

Cape Town - My experience with Bell Pottinger begs the question whether it truly acted as soon as it realised it had been misled by employees working on the Guptas’ account.

Bell Pottinger CEO James Henderson said in a statement on Thursday that “as soon as we were made aware that we had been misled and that work was being done which goes against the very core of our ethical policies, we acted immediately”.

His “unequivocal and absolute apology to anyone impacted” came after an internal investigation found evidence that “dismayed” the firm.

The Democratic Alliance and Save South Africa have called for full disclosure of its contract with Gupta-linked firms, and demanded that more be done following heightened racial tensions after the campaign which reportedly created the term “white monopoly capital”.

How Fin24 exposed Bell Pottinger

However, months before the twitter bots were revealed and anecdotes by journalists of their interactions with the public relations firm published, Fin24 revealed an incident with one of the firm’s employees that should have alerted management months before the bots were set free.

In July 2016, Bell Pottinger alerted me to a leaked document it had obtained. It wanted to send the snapshot on a secure platform so that Fin24 could publish a scoop in the unfolding Gupta “state capture” story.

I was stunned to receive a photo of a confidential draft document written by President Jacob Zuma’s controversial interministerial committee (IMC) tasked with investigating the blacklisting of the Guptas’ bank accounts.

This was the IMC that Zuma appointed, which included Gupta-linked Mines Minister Mosebenzi Zwane, former finance minister Pravin Gordhan and Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant. Gordhan refused to partake.

Fin24 decided it would be prudent not to publish anything, despite the newsworthiness of the leak, for two reasons:

  • One, no government official linked to the committee was able to authenticate the document;
  • Two, we were concerned that we were advancing a well-thought-out agenda by a public relations firm known for its effective narrative-changing strategies.

I was sent Zwane’s cellphone number three times, with a message on WhatsApp from Bell Pottinger employee Nick Lambert: “We have checked with source again, who reiterated … call the minister directly, not spokesperson.”

I told Lambert we would rather wait for the official statement to be released. However, it didn’t take long before an edited version of the document emerged.

None other than Zwane himself irregularly released the document 40 days later. We were finally able to authenticate the document as genuine, albeit slightly watered down.

Zwane was censored by Zuma for releasing the document on behalf of Cabinet, because it had not been approved. It has yet to be released officially.

Gordhan and the Guptas

The draft document we received was far harsher than the one Zwane sent out. In it, it said: “Enough information was supplied to the IMC to suggest that a judicial enquiry be established to consider allegations against certain members of Cabinet and their abuse of powers and authority as well as the various banks or institutions in question as regards alleged collusion and/or failure to comply with FICA alternatively with the PCCAA”.

This was a direct attack against Gordhan, who was under immense pressure from the Hawks and the National Prosecuting Authority.

Gordhan took the Guptas’ firms to court because he felt they were putting too much pressure on his office to intervene in the blacklisting of their bank accounts. A judgment in the matter is still pending.

When asked for comment on why it had sent us the document, Bell Pottinger told Fin24 in September 2016: "Bell Pottinger has encountered widespread sympathy for the way Oakbay has been treated and did not seek to obtain this information, but was made aware of it.

"Given its relevance to the issue of Oakbay's closed accounts, the public interest and the ongoing media coverage of the story, Bell Pottinger contacted Fin24/News24 to put the information into the public domain.”

Investigation into Bell Pottinger’s Gupta contract

Bell Pottinger quit working for the Guptas’ Oakbay Investments three months ago due to social media attacks. It defended its work in South Africa, saying the criticism was unfair.

However, it changed its tune this week after a law firm investigation found “interim evidence which has dismayed us”.

“There has been a social media campaign that highlights the issue of economic emancipation in a way that we, having now seen it, consider to be inappropriate and offensive,” it said in a statement on Thursday.

“For it to be done in South Africa, a country which has become an international beacon of hope for its progress towards racial reconciliation, is a matter of profound regret and in no way reflects the values of Bell Pottinger.”

It appears that lead partner Victoria Geoghegan has been fired and employees involved - like Lambert - have been suspended “so that we can determine their precise role in what took place”. Fin24 is seeking confirmation for this, as Bell Pottinger did not name them.

Law firm Herbert Smith Freehills’s inquiry, which is reviewing the account and the work done on it, is continuing, Bell Pottinger said. It will publish the findings of that report once completed.

As such, Fin24 has sent the public relations firm questions, asking whether this incident is forming part of the investigation.

It asked the executive team whether it knew about the attempted leak at the time, and whether it will investigate it further to understand the nature and intention of the leak.

Fin24 will publish any feedback regarding these questions.

* Matthew le Cordeur is deputy editor of Fin24.

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