“Gullibility” is the word which Chime Communication’s chairman Lord (Tim) Bell is reported to have implied when trying to explain away the ineptitude of senior members of his staff in allowing themselves to get caught in a newspaper sting.
Bell has condemned what he considered was an “unethical, underhand deception” by undercover reporters from the Independent’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism in tricking Tim Collins, managing director of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, into believing they were agents for the government of Uzbekistan.
Collins and two senior colleagues were caught on camera “boasting” how top lobbyists could “influence the Prime Minister. (Independent, 6.12.2011)
But Collins is no stranger to the black arts of journalism: he was the Conservative Party’s spin doctor who briefed political correspondents in advance of on John Major’s “Back to Basics” speech at the 1993 Tory conference – a briefing which backfired because of Collins’ guidance that Major was intent on rolling back the permissive society.
I named Collins as the source of the off-the-record guidance in my book Soundbites and Spin Doctors in which I also revealed that Collins, then the Conservatives’ director of communications, protested when I asked an unexpected question of the party chairman Norman Fowler during the furore following newspaper revelations about the private life of the then environment minister Tim Yeo.
Political journalists do face a dilemma when writing books which reflect on the rise and fall of political parties. I believed that my 1995 account of Major’s final, turbulent years in government – when the Conservatives were getting a hammering in the news media – was a fair examination of the events that took place and there was a sufficient distance in time to allow me to explain who said what at critical moments.
But I do accept that Tim Collins – and Lord Fowler – do feel aggrieved to this day about my conduct and I also recognise that some political correspondents, although few in number, do still respect all confidences and would not dream of identifying their sources, even after a lapse of many years.
Nonetheless given his experience at the hands of the Westminster lobby during a wretched period of John Major’s Premiership, I would have thought that Collins would have realised that political lobbyists were an ongoing target for investigative journalists.
Derek Draper, the former New Labour apparatchik, was exposed in a similar fashion in 1998 when claiming he had unprecedented access to members of Tony Blair’s government.
Judging by the interview he gave to the London Evening Standard (8.12.2011), Lord Bell does feel aggrieved by the deception and perhaps, though he would not say so, “at the gullibility of his staff for falling for the sting.”
Perhaps the moment has come when lobbyists need to take some lessons in how to detect journalistic subterfuge. Despite the chilling effect of the Leveson Inquiry, the news media has not been deterred from mounting investigations and the lobbying industry remains a prime target.