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UK PR firm hit by South Africa racism row

Vidya Ram London | Updated on January 10, 2018 Published on September 05, 2017

Troubled times: An office building housing the headquarters of public relations company Bell Pottinger in London   -  REUTERS

Bell Pottinger expelled from trade body after probe finds it helped stoke racial tensions

Bell Pottinger, formerly one of Britain’s most reputed PR agencies, saw its fortunes continue to dive rapidly as the industry’s trade association in the UK, the PRCA, expelled it over controversial work it had done for Oakbay Capital in South Africa, controlled by the wealthy Gupta family.

“The PRCA has never before passed down such a damning indictment of an agency’s behaviour,” the body said on Tuesday as it banned the PR firm, set up by a close aide of former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, for reapplying to the body for five years.

The expulsion is the latest hit to the troubled PR firm, whose chief executive James Henderson resigned over the weekend, over the scandal in which it stood accused of helping the Gupta family stoke racial tensions in South Africa in order to detract attention from domestic controversy over the family’s influence over the nation’s political establishment and President Zuma and his family in particular.

Opposition’s charge

The opposition Democratic Alliance accused them of running a “hateful and divisive campaign” for the Gupta family, pushing the idea of “economic apartheid” and that any opponents to the government and the Gupta’s were agents of “white monopoly capital,” including through social media, stoking tensions in a country where the issue of power and race remain highly emotive issues.

“Members of BP’s senior management should have known that the campaign was at risk of causing offence, including on grounds of race. In such circumstances BP ought to have exercised extreme care and should have closely scrutinised the creation of content for the campaign. This does not appear to have happened,” concluded a report by law firm Herbert Smith Freehills commissioned by Bell Pottinger in July soon after the scandal broke. In response, the firm said it was determined to learn lessons from the review and take appropriate action.

“It will take our country years to rebuild our severely fragile race relations, which Bell Pottinger, the Guptas and the Zumas sought to exploit for their own financial gains,” warned the South African opposition party the Democratic Alliance on Tuesday, welcoming the report, but calling for further disclosures from Bell Pottinger on the Oakbay Capital account, as well as for it to reinvest the proceeds from the work back into South Africa.

Bell Pottinger’s founder Tim Bell met with the Guptas in South Africa last year but has insisted that he advised the firm against taking the account citing conflicts of interest. Henderson, the former CEO, has also attempted to distance himself from the scandal insisting he had been let down by colleagues and had neither initiated nor been involved in the work.

Gupta-Zuma link

The scandal over the relationship between the Guptas and Zuma (including his son Duduzane who is a close business associate of the Guptas) is one of the biggest to hit South Africa in recent years.

Earlier this year, South African media published e-mails allegedly showing the huge influence wielded by the family including in securing political appointments over state owned enterprises. The Gupta family moved to South Africa in the 1990s and have businesses ranging from energy to mining. They and the government have insisted all along that they have not acted inappropriately.

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Published on September 05, 2017
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