The now infamous PR firm ‘Bell Pottinger’ was at the centre of the Gupta Leaks scandal as examined by Rehad Desai’s How to Steal A Country. This led to their demise after a landslide of 195,000 leaked emails uncovered their nefarious dealings amid accusations of state capture under Zuma’s ANC-led administration. ‘Bell Pottinger’ was paid £100 000 a month to aggravate racial tensions among South Africans creating catchphrases like “White Monopoly Capital”. Stoking racial division to distract citizens from the rot of corruption, the British firm was named and shamed after a group of investigative journalists broke the story. While arrogant and dismissing serious allegations, they were liquidated within weeks before they realised they should’ve hired a PR firm for themselves.
This death knell for Bell Pottinger is the crux of Influence, an incisive rise and fall documentary co-directed by journalists and directors, Richard Poplak and Diana Neille. While pivotting on the final turning point, Influence rewinds the story of ‘Bell Pottinger’ to its origins. The highly influential and notorious PR company was founded by Lord Tim Bell, who serves as the documentary’s primary subject. Unpacking his extensive involvement quite candidly as if broadcasting from a confessional, Bell reveals some of his darkest PR secrets like a disgraced former MI:6 operative. Unflinchingly cold in his demeanour, there’s very little remorse in his commentary, treating every insidious global intervention as a job.
Bell’s matter-of-fact attitude and smug airs recall the same callous and displaced pride of cinema gangsters who became death squad leaders in Indonesia, as documented in The Act of Killing. Regaling their brutal exploits as heroes and true patriots, their sociopathic disconnect mirrors Bell’s callous disposition. Seemingly aware of the far-reaching and world-altering consequences, he interviews like an immoral old rocker running through his greatest albums. The PR firm had no real friends when the Gupta Leaks blew them out the water and neither did Bell, who died from vascular parkinsonism last year.
Influence covers Bell’s rise through the ranks, starting in advertising and drawing acclaim for his instrumental involvement in Margaret Thatcher’s election campaign victories. Regarded as her “favourite spin doctor and confidante”, his back room dealings made him many high profile back-scratchers and led to the formation of ‘Bell Pottinger’ to oversee his many questionable political projects. A brilliant tactician, using his contacts and means to manipulate public sentiment and sway elections, his dealings saw his PR intervention effectively turn into weaponised communication. Already highly influential in the way public relations firms do business, Bell became a master of mass manipulation, reverse-engineering campaigns from the audience’s perspective.
“I can handle the truth.”
For most viewers, this peek behind the curtain will be eye-opening and shocking. While other documentaries and films such as The Great Hack, After Truth, How to Steal A Country and Brexit: The Uncivil War splayed open the fake news and weaponised PR debate, Influence goes deeper. The investigative documentary isn’t trying to explain the raw mechanics of how it works but rather dealing with the proliferation, weaponisation and lasting impact. Uncovering “jobs” that could each serve as a standalone documentary, Poplak and Neille break a leg in shunting the heavy red velvet curtains wider and wider.
Perception is powerful and by manipulating this, Bell Pottinger was trying to play God by embroiling themselves in political hot spots across the globe. Leaning on Bell’s testimony and key interviews with colleagues, clients and conspirators, the meticulous documentary incorporates a few of his exploits as if sampling a buffet. Influence gathers insights from key players such as politician Phumzile van Damme, journalist Marianne Thamm, former SA president FW de Klerk and founder of the parent company to the disgraced Cambridge Analytica, Nigel Oakes.
Exploring Bell’s game-changing influence on the PR industry, comprehending his rise to power, grappling with his exploits and detailing his eventual fall, it’s a dizzying, eye-opening, powerful and long overdue exposé. The biggest shock will be for South Africans, who know of Bell Pottinger but don’t realise how long the company has been associated with our country’s politics. As journalists, Poplak and Neille build a compelling case study of one unethical PR firm that reinforces the notion that democracy is for sale.
Influence is slick, explosive and entertaining, brandishing its unprecedented access to Bell, a slew of damning interviews with key figures and armed with extensive archive footage and visualisations to pack each punch. Advertising birthed the weaponised PR that’s making it dangerous to trust anything you read, see or hear ever again. Now it’s rampant and out of control on the back of social media and their in-depth ad platforms. This cautionary and timely film taps into this mindset offering evidence to validate the post-truth era and hopefully provoke the kind of actions and discussions to unlock and protect against it. There clearly needs to be more accountability, integrity, transparency and watchdog agencies when it comes to monitoring public relations and the clients who enable them.
The bottom line: Explosive