Friday, December 09, 2011

Colombo: Just One More Thing for Cameron

RAISING TAMILS' FATE on London May Day march. Bell Pottinger have different ways to get across their message. At a cost, of course.

AS Prime Minister David Cameron arrives home from Brussels wondering which of the masters he faces is going to cane him the worst, his fellow EU chiefs of government or the Euro-Skeptics in his Tory party, he will doubtless be grateful for small mercies, such as attention being taken away from lesser issues looming, like the extent of private influence on his government.

Put out the flags for patriotism, though they are probably sewn in the sweatshops of some distant foreign land, our ruling scoundrels need their shelter. Cameron says he will look after "British interests", by which he means the City of London for whose financial role the rest of the country was sacrificed, its towering skyline a graphical symbol of debt. But whether we're talking the dollar, pound or Euro, we who are just have-nots know our politicians look after the haves, and especially those who have plenty.

What is interesting though is how far their services can be procured by the influence-buyers, so that not just the work of government but its policy is privatised.

In the United States we know that lobbying is big business, but it is nothing new, even for the mother of parliaments. In days of old a body such as the East India Company could buy a seat, MP and all, to ensure its interests were looked after. Parliament was reformed, more people enfranchised, and MPs given a salary; but the Attlee government under post-war austerity had to contend with a junior minister helping a pools company obtain more paper, in return for a three-piece suit and a holiday in Margate. Everything has gone up since then.

An undercover investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Reporting , published in the Independent, has exposed senior executives of the lobbying firm Bell Pottinger, on tape:

* Claiming they have used their access to Downing Street to persuade David Cameron to speak to the Chinese premier on behalf of one of their business clients, within 24 hours of asking him to do so.

* Boasting about Bell Pottinger’s access to the Foreign Secretary William Hague, and to Cameron’s chief of staff Ed Llewellyn and to his old friend and adviser Steve Hilton;

* Suggesting the company could manipulate Google results to ‘drown out’ negative coverage of human rights violations and child labour;

* Revealing that Bell Pottinger has a team which ‘sorts’ negative Wikipedia coverage of clients;

* Saying it was possible to use MPs known to be critical of investigative programmes, to attack their reporting for minor errors.

"There are a lot of people in Parliament who can't stand Channel 4 and can't stand Dispatches," Bell Pottinger's Tim Collins said. "So if there are any inaccuracies, even if they're fairly minor, you can work with some people who have a track record of not liking Channel 4, wanting to score points against Channel 4 [who will say:] 'Here is another instance of Channel 4 over-reaching themselves and putting out stuff they haven't properly checked'."

Besides using MPs, the company apparently boasted its teams could use "dark arts" to affect what information appeared on Google and Wikipedia, and the Independent also uncovered evidence of its lobbyists doubling as experts in the Foreign Office's prestigious Chatham House think tank.

'Tim Collins, managing director of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, told the reporters he used to be Mr Llewellyn's boss in Conservative Central Office, and had worked with Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne in the Conservative Research Department. "I've been working with people like Steve Hilton, David Cameron, George Osborne for 20 years-plus. There is not a problem getting the messages through," he said'.

Bell Pottinger's chairman Lord (Tim) Bell, a former media adviser to Margaret Thatcher, has responded to the report through his lawyers, Carter Ruck, attacking the reporters: "The conduct of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism does not remotely constitute responsible journalism. It is an attempt by unethical, deception to manufacture a story where none exists."

A spokeswoman for the Prime Minister said: "It is simply not true that Bell Pottinger or indeed any other lobbying company has any influence on government policy."

Nevertheless MPs are asking for Bell Pottinger cxecutives to be called before a parliamtary inquiry into lobbying. They are not the only ones demanding answers.

Reporters from the Bureau posed as agents for the government of Uzbekistan, notorious for killings, human rights violations and child labour – and representatives of its cotton industry, in a bid to discover what promises British lobbying and public relations firms were prepared to make when pitching to clients; what techniques they use; and and how much of their work is open to public scrutiny.

Bell Pottinger bosses said their services didn't come cheap - a campaign might cost a £1 million to start, and £100,000 a day. Audits had to be prepared, though one remarked that nobody knew who had paid for their campaign on behalf of Belarus. They also boasted of how they had helped the government in Sri Lanka, facing international concern, indeed outrage at its treatment of the Tamil minority, including internment and 'disappearances'.

"We had a team working in the President's office. We wrote the President's speech to the UN last year which was very well received... it went a long way to taking the country where it needed to go," David Wilson, the chairman of Bell Pottinger Public Relations, said during the meeting with undercover reporters.

The company also attended a meeting of Tamil dissidents in London, the British Tamils Forum (BTF) said. Days before President Rajapaksa's arrival in London in December 2010, Tim Ryan, the chairman of Bell Pottinger International, and a colleague attended an open political meeting in Harrow organised by the BTF and the Nava Sama Samaja [New Social Equality] Party.

The Tamil Solidarity movement, which previously took up former Defence Secretary Liam Fox over his trips to Colombo and links to the Sri Lankan regime, has demanded to know what influence the government of Sri Lanka and its lobbyists might have had on David Cameron.

'The UK government has made no serious effort to bring the GoSL to account for the war crimes. Instead the GoSL is still considered a full member of the Commonwealth and will be allowed to chair the next summit in 2013. This should be prevented. The country should be suspended from the organisation. Cameron’s weasel words calling on the GoSL to “improve human rights” mean nothing for the oppressed Tamil-speaking people. We want to see action taken. We demand that Cameron reveals all his personal dealings with Bell Pottinger. We demand that the government shows the concrete details of the measures it has taken in relation to war crimes in Sri Lanka given that it’s ex-defence secretary was proved to be criminally close to the government. Disgraced former defence minister Liam Fox is a close friend of Rajapakse and defended the GoSL. Even though he has been forced out his foreign policy continues. Furthermore it appears that his method of backroom deals has not ceased either. We demand transparency in foreign policy dealings.

Nearly three years have passed since the major massacre took place in SL. 20,000 young people remain in secret torture camps, tens of thousands are kept in makeshift camps and there has been no proper resettlement. We cannot accept the continuation of this oppression. The Tamil-speaking people living in the UK should stand up to these rotten politicians whose morals is no better than the Rajapkses’.

That's just one more thing, as (detective) Colombo used to say. But if Cameron's not influenced by the lobbyists, as his office insists, we're left with the conclusion that the British government supports the repression in Sri Lanka as a matter of policy.

Rajapakse, David Cameron and Bell Pottinger – working together?
Tamils chase Fox from his lair!

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