Open letter to Bell Pottinger

Posted by Tim Ireland at 7 December 2011

Category: Old Media, Teh Interwebs

This entry was posted on
Wednesday, December 7th, 2011
at
8:56 am and is filed
under Old Media, Teh Interwebs.

I have just sent this email to Bell Pottinger:

From: Tim Ireland
To: info@bell-pottinger.co.uk
Date: Wed, Dec 7, 2011 at 8:45 AM
Subject: Your Wikipedia edits

I think the most charming thing about the Wikipedia account of yours that I uncovered was the author’s inclination to accuse others of being biased and/or of having a hidden agenda, when all along he/she was making edits according to a hidden bias/agenda dictated by money:
http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Special:Contributions&limit=500&target=Biggleswiki

I have issued a public challenge for you to declare all of your Wikipedia accounts:

This is a public challenge to #BellPottinger to declare their Wikipedia accounts. Or I can ferret them out for you (eg http://j.mp/vv29KG)
http://twitter.com/#!/bloggerheads/statuses/144334898826715136

Alternatively, as I suggest in my tweet, I can ferret them out for you and name them without your permission.

Your call.

Cheers

Tim Ireland
www.bloggerheads.com

Updates as and when. As you were.

UPDATE (11am) – Tracking shows that my email has been read 4 times via an IP address specific to Bell Pottinger. I won’t say which IP address specifically, but I will say that it has an interesting edit history in Wikipedia. Still waiting for a reply.

UPDATE (1pm) – 7 times. Still no reply.

UPDATE (9pm) – Financial Times (REGISTRATION REQUIRED) – Wikipedia pulls Bell Pottinger-linked pages: Wikipedia, the online user-generated encyclopedia, has suspended 10 accounts associated with Bell Pottinger, the firm at the heart of a dispute over lobbying industry ethics, on suspicion there may have been a breach of its editing rules. Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, told the Financial Times that it was conducting an internal investigation into changes made to the pages of Bell Pottinger’s clients in a case which has roused controversy over the methods used by lobbying companies to influence opinion… A spokesman for Bell Pottinger, which is owned by Chime Communications, admitted that its employees had edited Wikipedia pages on behalf of clients but said that it had “never done anything illegal”. “We have never added anything that is a lie and never tried to ‘astroturf’,” Bell Pottinger said, referring to the unscrupulous practice of faking “grassroots” support online.

Putting aside the old Tory fallback of “it’s not illegal” when caught doing something unethical, I would beg to differ on the matter of astroturfing, having seen many of the relevant edits myself; it is astroturfing from the moment Bell Pottinger pretends to be a concerned member of the public and not a paid PR representative, and they have done that often.

UPDATE (11:30pm) – TBIJ – Revealed: The Wikipedia pages changed by Bell Pottinger: Wikipedia last night confirmed to the Independent newspaper, which has published the Bureau’s investigation, that the ‘Biggleswiki’ account is one of the accounts its team has blocked pending the outcome of an internal report instigated by its founder, Jimmy Wales. James Thomlinson, head of digital at Bell Pottinger said: ‘Biggleswiki is one of a number of accounts that the digital team have used to edit Wikipedia articles. This account has been in operation for over a year. I would like to point out that while we have worked for a number of clients like the Prostate Centre, we have NEVER done anything illegal!’

UPDATE (8 Dec) – The Independent – The ‘dark arts’: Bell Pottinger caught rewriting its clients’ Wikipedia entries: Evidence seen by The Independent and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) shows the company made hundreds of alterations to Wikipedia entries about its clients in the last year. Some of the changes added favourable comments while others removed negative content… In other cases, damaging allegations against clients of Bell Pottinger, which The Independent cannot publish for legal reasons, were removed from Wikipedia. The connection was first spotted by the blogger Tim Ireland, after reading the joint investigation into Bell Pottinger by the BIJ and The Independent, on Tuesday.

Well, I think I can give up on waiting for a reply from Bell Pottinger now.

UPDATE (8 Dec, 10am) – On reflection, there is still some work to be done:

From: Tim Ireland
To: info@bell-pottinger.co.uk
Date: Thu, Dec 8, 2011 at 10:09 AM
Subject: Your Wikipedia edits (again)

Dear Bell Pottinger peeps,

Thank you for not bothering with the courtesy of a reply, even though my email was read by up to 7 staff members. I feel as passed-around and neglected as the girl in the song ‘Pretty In Pink’:
http://youtu.be/gg3FOJNAiks

I write to you today to let you know that with the Wikipedia-run investigation underway, my ferreting skills may seem more or less surplus to requirements (admins can see the IP data behind the relevant accounts, bypassing any need for good old-fashioned detective work), but we are not entirely done here.

I won’t pretend there isn’t a purely recreational aspect to this; I must admit that I do enjoy a good sock-puppet hunt, and I love watching your staff castigate others for not having a NPOV (neutral point of view), while they fail to declare that they are being paid to forward the view(s) they publish. I have also enjoyed extended bouts of health-enhancing laughter in response to your shrill assertions that you have broken no law, when what you have engaged in are unethical practices for morally challenged clients, clearly in violation of Wikipedia’s clearly-stated policy:

“Editing in the interests of public relations (other than obvious corrections) is particularly frowned upon. This includes, but is not limited to, professionals paid to create or edit Wikipedia articles.”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Conflict_of_interest

But the main issue here is this same pretence that you have done nothing wrong.

If you continue with your current dishonest line of defence and have the audacity to disguise this behind Wikipedia’s commitment to privacy, I will have no hesitation in pointing out the specific wrongs you have done myself, as I remain capable of revealing some if not all of these wrongs without compromising that privacy.

Alternatively, if you’ve genuinely nothing to be ashamed of, and everything you have done is above board, then there should be nothing preventing you from revealing the names of the 20+ accounts you have used to edit Wikipedia on behalf of your clients and/or toward your own interests (without declaring an interest).

So, over to you. Again.

Cheers

Tim Ireland
www.bloggerheads.com

PS – I also want to know if your refusal to communicate with an insignificant blogger means that I don’t have to worry about giving notice about the content of any upcoming publications about Tim Bell, just to choose one example not-at-random.

Updates as and when, as per usual.


UPDATE (1:20pm) – Full list of articles Wikipedia believe to have been edited by Bell Pottinger-related accounts

Wikipedia are taking a much stronger position on this than I anticipated, but that list is incomplete, and Bell Pottinger will not look as if they are acting honourably if this data has to be sniffed out or dragged out.

UPDATE (2pm) – Same link, but Wikipedia admins have started publishing relevant account names here.

UPDATE (4pm) – The Wikipedia team have been made aware of my leads. Throughout this event, my emails to Bell Pottinger have been read a total of 18 times by people at offices for Bell Pottinger and Chime Communications, but no-one at either office has granted me the courtesy of a reply. Not even a brief word about what they expect to see in advance from me about an article about Tim Bell. Oh well.

Meanwhile, Mr Bell has expressed his regret… that they were caught:

London Evening Standard – ‘Of course I regret it, I need it like a hole in the head, all this s**t’: Another allegation is that the company coordinated the rewriting of Wikipedia entries on behalf of clients. Bell maintains that “on the basis of what has been reported so far, I can see no example of people behaving improperly, though perhaps behaving indiscreetly.” I ask if he and his company have been damaged this week. “Yes,” he agrees, “we’ll suffer limited damage. It won’t last for long, but that doesn’t make me complacent. Every person here is searching their souls to decide whether they did something wrong or not.”

UPDATE (4:15pm) – I just received, and replied to, a depressingly generic response from Bell Pottinger. I am about to go into a meeting, but plan to at least blog my response later.

UPDATE (09 Dec) – BBC – Wikipedia investigates PR firm Bell Pottinger’s edits: The online encyclopaedia’s founder Jimmy Wales told the BBC the lobbyists had “embarrassed their clients”. He said a team of volunteers was looking at possible breaches of conflict of interest guidelines. Bell Pottinger admitted to editing entries, but said it had “never done anything illegal”. Mr Wales said he was “highly critical of their ethics”. “I’ve never seen a case like this. In general when I speak to PR firms they have ethical guidelines that would prevent this kind of conduct.” While anyone is free to edit the encyclopaedia, the site’s guidelines urge users to steer clear of topics in which they have a personal or business interest.

Late yesterday afternoon, Bell Pottinger released a statement that elicited the following responses from Jimmy Wales (founder of Wikipedia).

Some press are now receiving a statement from Bell Pottinger that they followed Wikipedia guidelines. That is flatly false. (1) Bell Pottinger behaved unethically and broke several Wikipedia rules in doing so. The public record can be seen by anyone. (2) Bell Pottinger continuing to insist that they did nothing wrong at Wikipedia is a total farce. (3) – Jimmy Wales

I received a copy of that same statement. The relevant email appears in full below (minus the actual attachments containing the same data repeated in the text).

From: info@bell-pottinger.co.uk
To: Tim Ireland
Date: Thu, Dec 8, 2011 at 3:59 PM
Subject: FAO Tim Ireland – Bell Pottinger Wikipedia Response

Dear Tim,

We are sending you the below statement which we have sent to Jimmy Wales at Wikipedia and will send to others.

As mentioned in the statement below we are undertaking an internal review of our interaction with Wikipedia and we would also like to enter into a constructive dialogue with Wikipedia to avoid mistakes being made in the future for us and the wider industry.

Regards,

Bell Pottinger

London, 8 December 2011: Today’s Independent (8 December 2011) reports: “Bell Pottinger caught rewriting its clients’ Wikipedia entries”. We confirm that we have edited Wikipedia entries in the interest of accuracy of information for some of our clients.

The changes made by ‘BigglesWiki’ were made in accordance with Wikipedia’s guidelines, i.e. through the use of Talk and discussion pages, so that we sought the approval of the wider Wikipedia community before they were published. We also ensured that any additions to Wikipedia were based on facts that had already been reported in the public domain, so that these changes could be correctly referenced.

The issue of PR agencies and the wider media editing Wikipedia is something that we would welcome a further discussion on with Wikipedia. We are aware of Wikipedia’s guidelines that advise: “editing in the interests of public relations is particularly frowned upon”, but no more so than others using Wikipedia to publish inaccurate information.

We are undertaking a review of our interaction with Wikipedia to date, to ensure that we are collaborating with Wikipedia in the true spirit of the community. If we have fallen short of complying with the code and spirit of the community then we will change our practices.

We view Wikipedia as an essential and positive part of the modern media landscape and want to fully cooperate with the community in the future.

Finally we would like to bring to your attention three of the top tweets on Twitter throughout today:

@fieldproducer (Digital News Editor at Sky News): “It’s laughable that the Independent can attack Bell Pottinger for changing Wikipedia entries but not fire Johann Hari who did much worse”

@tom_watson (Labour MP): “Well done Tim @bloggerheads for catching out Bell Pottinger changing Wikipedia entries for their clients”

@justice4daniel: “Bell Pottinger’s senior executives described how they prepared Rebekah Brooks for her evidence to Parliament”

I immediately sent the following response:

From: Tim Ireland
To: info@bell-pottinger.co.uk
Date: Date: Thu, Dec 8, 2011 at 4:18 PM
Subject: FAO Tim Ireland – Bell Pottinger Wikipedia Response

1. I am aware of all of these tweets, thanks. I RTed every single one of them earlier in the day.

2. The use of ‘Biggleswiki’ or any other account (for commercial purposes especially) without declaring an interest is not in keeping with Wikipedia guidelines (see pillars below in 1st link, for starters) and ethical standards in PR that almost everyone else appears to understand (see #4 on ‘transparency’ in 2nd link)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Five_pillars
http://www.ipra.org/detail.asp?articleid=31

3. Some editors that appear to be Bell Pottinger staff/agents, rather than seeking approval from the wider community, actually implied that it was others with a hidden agenda at times; a hostile move that’s not in keeping with the approval-seeking picture you paint. Do you have any response to this? I can provide specifics if you would care to comply with the request referenced below:

4. So you have NO intention of revealing all of the account names you used? Please be clear on this. You say you “want to fully cooperate with the community in the future”. Would you like me to run a petition calling for you to reveal all of teh relevant account names? Would that help convince you to belatedly declare an interest?

5. So you want NO notice of any of the contents in any upcoming article I may publish about Tim Bell? Please be VERY clear on this.

Tim Ireland

So far, no reply, but it looks like Jimmy Wales got something beyond this statement, as he tweeted this about an hour after it came out:

“Just spoke with Lord Bell. He agreed to let me give his staff a speech on ethical editing of Wikipedia. Seems prepared to apologize.” – Jimmy Wales (source)

Bell Pottinger will show that they haven’t learned a damn thing if they deliver a partial response and/or a self-serving half-apology late this (Friday) afternoon, because it will show they are still trying to play the public instead of responding earnestly to these concerns. If they are having difficulty with the concept of honesty, they should have someone explain to them that, from the moment they are dishonest about their identity – especially when it’s to the point of creating false identities (more here) – then the ‘accuracy’ of their Wikipedia edits during this deception is largely an irrelevance.

This story is bigger than Bell Pottinger’s antics in Wikipedia; it is about their flat refusal to offer transparency or even understand why it is important from any lobbying force in a democracy. This arrogant dismissal of the rights of the electorate to engage in an open and fair democracy is the reason why Bell Pottinger play footsies with the IPRA, but do not abide by the code fully… because they refuse to comply with this condition (referenced above):

4. Transparency

(In the conduct of public relations practitioners shall:) Be open and transparent in declaring their name, organisation and the interest they represent; (source)

And I do not think I overstate their commitment to resisting the transparency we should expect of anyone in their position:

SpinWatch – Bell Pottinger exposes weakness of self-regulation: Only three years ago Bell Pottinger Public Affairs’ chairman, Peter Bingle, openly told a committee of MPs that he was opposed to transparency. Committee member Paul Flynn MP addressed Bingle: “You’ve worked for mass murders, racists, people who’ve oppressed their own people…Doesn’t the public have a right to know who your clients are?” No, Bingle replied, “the public has no right to know.”

I beg to differ.

More updates to come, folks. Watch this space.

UPDATE (11am) – PR Week – Lord Bell Accepts Jimmy Wales’ Offer Of Ethical Wikipedia Editing Guidance

UPDATE (3:30pm) – Bell Pottinger’s response, in full:

From: info@bell-pottinger.co.uk
To: Tim Ireland
Date: Fri, Dec 9, 2011 at 3:21 PM
Subject: FAO Tim Ireland – Bell Pottinger Wikipedia Response

Dear Tim,

Thanks for your reply. As you may have seen reported, we have been in touch with Jimmy Wales who has offered to come in and talk to our people about the correct way to deal with Wikipedia. We have accepted that offer and believe that is our best course of action.

Regards,

Bell Pottinger

I think it’s safe to say they they don’t yet grasp (or care to acknowledge) that the issue is bigger than their attitude towards Wikipedia.

UPDATE (13 Dec); I’ve submitted a comment under this post on a blog that includes a copy of a recent statement from Bell Pottinger. Like others, I’d like to have a word with them about their amendments to a reference page about skin cancer that removed instructions for self-screening and replaced it with a plug for a client who charges £40* a shot for an online screening service.

[*For the sake of accuracy, I should point out that the relevant client does offer prices as low as £19.95 (“Special Promotion. Limited period only”) source: moletestuk.com/prices.htm ]








19 Comments

  1. @mjmilan says

    Well done Sir…

  2. Eric Marcus says

    yeah, the Bell Pottinger ip address might just be their firewall? which means it could be anyone within their network ?

    • Tim_Ireland says

      Oh, yes. 'Read 7 times' does not equal 'read by 7 people' and I certainly do not mean to imply that any of the people reading the email are Wiki-puppeteers.

  3. therealsim_o says

    Wow. That's unusual. You actually got credited for something by a newspaper rather than smeared and lied about.

    That must be an odd feeling Tim.

    Nice one.

  4. paulbradshaw says

    Nicely done. Particularly like the tracking in the email…

  5. Annie Kist says

    "I feel as passed-around and neglected as the girl in the song ‘Pretty In Pink’:"

    3p1c lulz

    • Carl Eve says

      That's my favourite line… nice cultural reference point while taking a PR firm apart… Could you do something from Weird Science next?

  6. Paulo says

    There are dozens more sock puppet accounts on wikipedia making thousands of edits a month, particularly to remove references to dodgy business practices. You might want to note them down before they catch on and start trying to cover their tracks…

  7. Chris says

    You sir deserve an honour (though I suspect you won’t be getting one from Downing St).

  8. The Prof says

    Not just on Wikipedia. There is a San Diego publisher posting fake accounts on Facebook to praise it's own products, they were just caught out misusing the logo of a govt body in Texas as well

    • Tim_Ireland says

      Oh, yes. It's a widespread and ongoing problem. I remember the Burger King executive caught using his daughter's YouTube account in a pathetic sock puppet attack on a coalition of farm workers who dared to ask for an extra penny for each bucket of tomatoes harvested: http://www.bloggerheads.com/archives/2008/04/stev

  9. Lorraine says

    Since they are be playing 'we thought we doing it right, show us what we did wrong and we won't do it again' move

    The simplest question to ask them is: why then, did they create multiple 'secret' accounts pretending to be other people in order to make changes?

    Would be great if Jimmy Wales just went in and said: 'Look I know you're bullshitting, you know you're bullshitting, we all know you're bullshitting, cut it out.'

    Its pretty offensive really expecting him to give of his time to cover their arses. Can't imagine standing in front of that group of people giving a presentation about morals and ethics. It's not like they'll actually listen or give a shit.

  10. T Step says

    glad you called them on this.
    The blog you posted on doesn't seem to want to display your comment…. maybe it'll show up tomorrow.

  11. Annie Kist says

    Lord (of the dark arts) Bell ——-> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hJca_-PsXJA

  12. hengistmcstone says

    Hi Tim, a couple of Biggleswiki's articles have been removed from WP. Im thinking of Ivor Ichikowitz and Paramount Group. Is there any way to access them now? Cheers

  13. Hamish says

    Among other things, Bell Pottinger boasted of their expertise in the dark arts of moving positive items about their clients up in the Google rankings and moving negative ones down.
    I believe this is what is euphemistically known as Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) in which you are a leading expert.
    Please reassure us (as Joe McCarthy would have said) that you are not now and never have been a consultant to Bell Pottinger.

    • Tim_Ireland says

      It is one potential use of SEO, rather than the sole application as you describe it. But, to put your mind at ease, I have not done any work for Bell Pottinger, and I have no plans to do any work for Bell Pottinger.

  14. icicle says

    Is there a chance that Bilcat (who no longer exists on Wikipedia) was Bell Pottinger? I have no idea how one would check this out. He appears to be from the US, so maybe not.

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