Old Media

The PR Transparency Project – Part 1: making an example of Tim Bell

After his company was caught secretly editing Wikipedia on behalf of some very unsavoury clients toward some no-less-unsavoury ends, Tim Bell has had the audacity to project this wrongdoing back onto Wikipedia and Teh Internets as a whole:

James Thomlinson, head of digital at Bell Pottinger, apologised, admitting: “We did get some of the things wrong.” But he called for Wikipedia’s rules to be updated, blaming the wrongdoing on its “confusing” editing system and “the pressure put on us by clients to remove potentially defamatory or libellous statements very quickly, because Wikipedia is so authoritative.”

Lord Bell, who as Tim Bell advised Margaret Thatcher on the former British prime minister’s election campaigns, said he was sorry the situation occurred but was less apologetic about the content of the changes.

“As far as I am concerned, we have done absolutely nothing wrong whatsoever … We did not make any change that was wrong, it’s a means and ends discussion,” he said.

He said he believed Wikipedia’s guidelines implied that “if you are a paid adviser, you must be lying. Obviously we find that offensive.”

He bemoaned the lack of a “regulatory body” to complain to online, where reputations can be destroyed “in one minute”.

Source: Financial Times (subscription required)

That last assertion comes to you from a shameless liar who has spent decades destroying the reputations of others covertly for personal and political gain, and this behaviour continues into the 21st century. What comeback did any of these victims hope to have against Tim Bell’s anonymised attacks? This is blatant projection from a sock-puppeting liar, I won’t stand for it, and neither should you.

Tim Bell’s straw man relies on the widely-held view that there is little-to-nothing wrong with lobbying on behalf of a client (OK by me), making factual updates to Wikipedia (OK by me), or attempting to put your best face forward in the top ten searches for your name/brand (OK by me)… but what Bell Pottinger have engaged in is secret lobbying, including some wholly unacceptable commercial updates to what is supposed to be a reference library, in an attempt to covertly influence both Wikipedia and the top ten searches for a series of names/brands.

It is clearer now more than ever that if we wish to change how things are done at Bell Pottinger, the person we need to reach is Tim Bell, and we are going to reach him through the top ten search results for his name. We are, at the same time, going to attempt to bring about positive change in the PR industry as a whole.

When I say ‘we’, I mean me and you. Yes, you. If you’re up for a bit of danger and detail, that is.

Speaking of the latter…

Lord Tim Bell is Chairman of Chime Communications plc, a communications group which owns Bell Pottinger Group plc* (aka Bell Pottinger), the multinational public relations company that bears his name, and follows his principles.

The problems Bell Pottinger have run into recently stem directly from Tim Bell’s long-standing resistance to transparency. He appears to think that secretly editing a reference library in favour of commercial interests in exchange for money is OK, and this ethical blind spot has been there since long before the web and Wikipedia became an issue. Mr Bell needs to learn that the age of secret lobbying is over, and while it may be difficult to change the mind of someone as obstinate as he, I think we have a jolly good shot at changing the landscape that surrounds him in the attempt.

I invite you to join an informal lobbying group with one simple demand; that PR companies/professionals declare any profile(s) they use to edit Wikipedia, name and link to them plainly in the ‘About Us’ section of their website, and link back to that same website from their Wikipedia profile(s).

(This, in much the same way that web users would expect them to declare the names of Twitter accounts under their control, for subtly different but fundamentally similar reasons.)

Once PR companies/professionals declare these editing profiles and link to them from their sites (and link back to their own sites from these same profile pages), we enter Wikipedia territory. There is a significant debate to be had here about whether these profile pages generally should list all of the previous profiles/edits at the outset in a clear declaration of interest, but with the exception of Bell Pottinger and other bodies operating under Tim Bell**, personally I think it a matter for PR bods and Wikipedians to negotiate between themselves. It is not within my power to grant amnesty for any past indiscretions, and that is at the heart of that particular debate about any company who has not yet been caught out; should their new account be impacted by any of their past activity, and what measures can be taken to clean the slate?

Getting back to the simple demand for transparency, we are going to face some resistance here from people like Tim Bell who do not agree about the need for it.

To counter this resistance, we are going to speak softly and carry a very big stick. But first we are going to seek to bring vital perspective to the debate about transparency while initially demonstrating the effectiveness of our very big stick.

Here we reach the part about making an example of Tim Bell.

Tim Bell is all about shaping reality more to his liking by using image, lies and illusions to make others behave in ways that get him what he wants. He earns money by claiming that he is an expert in reputation management and his underlings make all sorts of claims about their capacity to ‘cleanse’ the top ten searches for names and brands by means both fair and foul.

The current top ten results for ‘Tim Bell’ are presently dominated by absurd puff pieces where Bell is simultaneously described as “the most influential man in PR” as he nobly declines the title of “founder of modern PR”. (Interviewer: “Lord Bell thanks very much for your time today.” Bell: “Please call me Tim.”)

Seeing as Tim Bell rejects the concept of transparency outright, those of us who ultimately pay the price for his profiteering are going to have to impose some; we are going to displace much of the existing top ten with factually accurate and highly relevant material that Tim Bell would much rather faded into the distance. Note use of the word ‘relevance’ here; we do not seek to G-bomb anyone, but instead feed new and entirely legitimate relevance into the system.

On my desk is a copy of The Ultimate Spin Doctor: Life and Fast Times of Tim Bell by Mark Hollingsworth. The contents are at present largely invisible to Google and other search engines. That is about to change.

This is an unauthorised biography that Tim Bell tried very hard to prevent, and it’s a fair bet that Bell doesn’t want material*** from it populating the top search results for his name, not least because he is going to look like a hopeless manager of reputations if he cannot cleanse his own top ten.

Tim Bell bio book

Chapters from this book will be shared out to participating bloggers who are part of our lobbying group. Each will then write a post based on any short extract they may choose to draw from the chapter assigned to them. In this way, the 10 chapters will be shared among an unknown number of bloggers, and the top fifty or so searches for ‘Tim Bell’ will begin to take on new relevance.

(Psst! Chapter One of this book talks about Tim Bell pretending to be Australian in the hopes of bypassing the class system, and I sure hope I draw that one myself, but I expect the most popular chapter will be the one detailing Tim Bell’s conviction for ‘wilfuly, openly and obscenely’ exposing himself ‘with intent to insult a female’ under Section 4 of the 1824 Vagrancy Act.)

Also, once I/we start releasing verbatim extracts from this published material, portions of it will begin to appear in Wikipedia, coalescing into legitimate points of reference on that page, which will probably remain the highest search result for his name.

(Note – One cannot legitimately participate in this lobbying group while editing Wikipedia entries relating to Tim Bell, especially not anonymously. It goes beyond hypocrisy; it amounts to a conflict of interest, it is not fair to the wider Wikipedia community, and it is wholly unnecessary; allowing what we publish from the book to filter into Wikipedia naturally will be more than enough.)

Please keep in mind here that we are talking about the online publication of material that has seen print without legal challenge. That said, Mr Bell may choose to exploit a little-known loophole in English libel law that allows him to challenge each instance as a fresh publication (see: The Bastard Duke of Brunswick) and if this does happen, then Bell can be expected to use any or all of the following methods to effect removal with the likely exception of #10 (consider yourselves warned):

Bell Pottinger guide to online reputation management

I expect what is going to test if not defeat Tim Bell’s capacity for reputation management is the ability of any web user to conduct themselves according to his standards, and it is on this note that we come to the hook…

Those of us familiar with Teh Interwebs know that there’s a world of difference between your average Joe maintaining a single anonymous blog/identity and PR boffins using multiple false/anonymous identities on behalf of clients for money, and we can’t expect Tim Bell to learn that much in such a short time, but I am hoping that the prospect of dealing with an unknown number of anonymous account holders based in several different countries will help him to better appreciate his own position, if only to the extent of having him revise his policy on covert lobbying.

Admittedly, there is a danger that within the group of people who target Tim Bell anonymously but legitimately, there will be people with a hidden vested interest who use this exercise as ‘cover’ to engage in a little subterfuge for reasons of profit, politics or personal payback (i.e. to attack him illegitimately), but should Tim Bell change his mind and decide all of a sudden that he doesn’t think it appropriate to lobby covertly, then my support for anonymous briefing against him will fall away naturally, as will that of others.

Now that point is made, I hope you understand the primary reason why I do not publish the chapters immediately today, and instead provide Mr Bell with a single and short-lived opportunity to consider the scope of what I propose. It is entirely possible that the above has the potential to change his perspective even before it grows beyond the status of thought experiment. (And if he doubts my capacity to engage at this level, he should search for ‘Billy Brit’ and consider that it took less than a week to effect total pwnership of that brand in Google, at a time when Google moved a lot slower than it does today.)

Should Tim Bell fail to take advantage of this opportunity, we can go about making an example of the man with our consciences clear and our position unassailable. Should he unexpectedly take the opportunity to embrace transparency, the effectiveness of our very big stick will be clear to others, who will take note.

Either way, it will then be time to put the following repeatedly and succinctly to any and all in the PR/lobbying industry, and those operating at its fringes:

PR companies/professionals should reveal the name any profile(s) they use to edit Wikipedia, state this plainly in the ‘About Us’ section of their website, and link back to that same website from their Wikipedia profile(s).

The nature of this campaign should make it clear that these changes are in line with public expectations about what is fair and right. Those in PR who believe otherwise will, of course, be free to lobby for secret lobbying, and I wish them luck. They’re going to need it.

The landscape of PR is about to change. Clear boundaries are about to be set, and the covert lobbyists who operate outside of them are about to become far more obvious than they would prefer.

(Psst! If you’re a blogger and you want ‘in’ on the outing, recruitment begins shortly, and chapters will be distributed randomly soon after that. Please stand by.)

——

[*Also Good Relations, Harvard, Stuart Higgins Communications and Resonate, but I'm sure we'll get to those PR company names and Chime Communications plc too in good time if the fight looks like taking a while; we're talking consequences so natural that effort will be required merely to keep this powder dry. Then there are client names, and all the relevant client-specific ammo Bell Pottinger have yet to defuse because they refuse to name their past editing profiles or even admit to any wrongdoing.]

[**Tim Bell is prone to telling people what they want to hear in order to get what he wants. Should he ever announce a change in policy regarding tranparency, only complete disclosure of Wikipedia accounts/edits to date is likely to convince me of his sincerity in this matter. I am not inclined to take Tim Bell at his word, because it means nothing.]

[***Some people in PR, like some people in law, do not mind being portrayed as bastards. Often, bastards are needed by other bastards. But Tim Bell cannot afford to be made to look incompetent, or petty, or disloyal to clients who suddenly find themselves mired in scandal. Material covering all this and more is contained in Bell's unauthorised biography, and he won't want it out there, though he may be forced to pretend otherwise shortly.]

[It should go without saying that this principle should apply to anyone engaging in PR-like activity, including SEO companies/professionals offering any image-oriented services. I personally do not edit Wikipedia. At all. I advise clients against it generally and against covert forms of influence quite specifically. I recognise that mine is a rigid standard, but I do not seek to impose it. Rather, I seek to popularise a widely-agreed standard of transparency for those who do engage in Wikipedia editing as part of their PR efforts. Just tell us who you're paid to represent when editing what's supposed to be reference material, folks. It really is as simple as that.]

[Declaration of Interest: Due to a minor matter of libel against me that Carter-Ruck refuse to discuss, I have a vested interest in compelling Tim Bell's chosen law firm to take part in any form of communication/negotiation. That said, this is only going to happen if Tim Bell does the most stupid thing imaginable and risks unleashing the Streisand effect. That said, I have good reason to believe that Tim Bell is prone to bouts of extreme stupidity, so better safe than sorry.]

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Open letter to Bell Pottinger

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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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!’

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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 ]

Daily Mail and the Foxy Knock-Offski

Did anyone else notice anything funny about this picture of Adam Werritty’s business card, as featured in the Daily Mail? No? Just me then.

Adam Werrit's business card 01

Was anyone else so blinded by irrational hatred for tabloid newspapers that they recognised it as backwards text and assumed this to be the result of their scanning it from another newspaper? No? Didn’t think so.

Adam Werrit's business card 02

Was anyone else so jealous of the professional standard set by the Mail that they spent an entire 2.5 seconds reversing the image to confirm this, and then spent a further 6.8 seconds in Google so they might discover which newspaper the Daily Mail has been lifting material from without credit? No? Well, that’s to be expected.

Adam Werrit's business card 03

Oh, and it was The Guardian, by the way; the Daily Mail scanned an image for one of their articles from The Guardian, and didn’t bother crediting them. But I’m sure this is one of those perfectly innocent oversights, and the Daily Mail had permission to use the image, which is why they used the high resolution version one can only get from scanning a two-day-old copy of a rival newspaper.

Open letter to journalist Nick Pisa

Morning, folks. I have decided to email Nick Pisa about his conduct last night, when through the Daily Mail he reported how a series of people reacted to an event that never happened.

from Tim Ireland
to nickpisa[AT]yahoo.com
date Tue, Oct 4, 2011 at 8:56 AM
subject Your talent for invention

Dear Nick,

Do you have any response to the evidence that you and relevant Daily Mail staff were prepared to go to print with [an] entirely invented accounts of events, reactions and statements that you could not possibly have witnessed?
http://www.mailwatch.co.uk/2011/10/03/invented-eyewitness-accounts/

This is what I have prepared in advance;

“Oh, do calm down; EVERYBODY does it,” said a clearly emotional Pisa before calling his critics names and running away.

If you would prefer me to report something you actually said, rather than what I expected you to say, then please do get in touch.

Cheers

Tim Ireland
www.bloggerheads.com

I’ve already received a genuine response while preparing this post, and I look forward to publishing it shortly.

UPDATE – Nick Pisa is now suggesting that I contact the Daily Mail for a response (on the basis that they published what he imagined) but for the record, this is a summary of what he had to say for himself about the above. These are key extracts from a wider email conversation, but if Nick is worried about being quoted out of context, I would be delighted to publish the entire exchange if he so requests.

Nick Pisa: “If you knew anything about reporting and not blogging then you would know two versions are written for court stories on deadline. Also as you are so web obsessed then you will have seen several news organisations made the same mistake.”

Tim Ireland: “I did see others making a similar mistakes re: the verdict, but this is entirely distinct from inventing reactions and statements made in ‘response’ to something that hadn’t happened. Are you saying that you’ve done this before and you regard it to be acceptable?”

Nick Pisa: “No. Now you are twisting my words. It is a version that is fine tuned before being sent for publication or online… To be honest I think it’s best you get a response from the Mail. They posted it. I have told you what happened. I do not recall name calling in fact the jeering was from your side as I recall ! I did not run away. I did not see the point in discussing it and I am as angry as you are.”

I’m especially delighted that Nick took offence at my imagined version of his reaction before not calling me names and not running away. :o)

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UPDATE (8pm) – The Daily Mail have expanded on their earlier statement (amounting to a blatantly false and entirely irrelevant claim about the ‘guilty’ story being up for only 90 seconds; something they persist with at their peril, as it undermines their denial) and have added the following to their site:

Confusion over the judge’s announcement meant Sky News and several news websites, including Mail Online, briefly reported incorrectly that Knox had been found guilty.

This was corrected just over a minute later when it became apparent that he had said she was guilty of slander before going on to say both Knox and Sollecito were innocent of Meredith’s murder.

We apologise for the error and have launched an enquiry to examine our procedures.

It is common practice among newspapers to prepare two versions of an article ahead of a court verdict and these are known as ‘set and hold’ pieces.

We would like to make it clear that Nick Pisa had no involvement in the decision to publish his set and hold piece on MailOnline.

The quotes were obtained from various parties in the event of either a guilty or not guilty verdict.

So the reactions to a guilty verdict that never came… were they obtained ahead of time, too? Perhaps Pisa based these sections of his piece on reactions to the slander verdict…

Amanda Knox looked stunned this evening after she dramatically lost her prison appeal against her murder conviction.

… but if this is the case, it makes no sense for these accounts of reactions to a verdict to be in a ‘set and hold’ piece, because the writer would at the time have been responding thinking he had a verdict.

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UPDATE (06 Oct) – I urge you to read the unfolding comments, and when a clearer picture emerges I expect to update the body of this post with any crucial elements (i.e. instead of deleting it and pretending it never happened, as some tabloids are wont to do). At this time, it appears entirely possible that Nick Pisa at least acted in good faith, and with some rigour, though we may not see any relevant details until after the Daily Mail have conducted their internal investigation. Scare quotes from ‘journalist’ in my headline have subsequently been snipped to remove the likelihood of the man being judged by this alone.

(Many people only read headlines/link text. Many others will read a post only, and not the comments, which is why vital corrections belong in the body of a post if/when they emerge, and why headlines should be corrected in line with changes to content. IMO.)

Media Watch Meet-up

A small group of liberal elitists behind The Sun: Tabloid Lies, Mail Watch, Express Watch and other personal attacks on common sense and decency will be meeting for a London-centric Chardonnay-quaffing* session at The Monarch in Camden at 2:30pm on Saturday 6th August, 2011.

Members of the public are invited to attend, provided they are not operating under the constraints of an imaginary legal device.

Those attending may be exposed to furtive whispers about media standards as a spectacle, media-watching as a sport, and other aspects of the vast left wing conspiracy to impose accuracy and accountability on a self-regulated system that’s doing just fine without our incessant meddling.

[*There may be some drinking of popular colas and lager beer, purely for the sake of appearances, should a photo opportunity arise. PS - bring a camera.]

Media Watch Meet-up

2:30pm
Saturday
6th August 2011
The Monarch in Camden:

http://www.monarchbar.com/contact/

Bags will be searched for pie.

#NotW Hackgate EXCLUSIVE: Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie & Jennifer Aniston

Short version:

Holy cow! It looks like News of the World ‘hacked’ the phone(s) of Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, and/or Jennifer Aniston!

Long version:

1. As I have already noted, if we are to hope to hold News Corporation to account for the conduct of newspapers operating under subsidiary News International, then what we need are victims of phone ‘hacking’ who are US citizens (or even, at this stage, US citizens who are potential victims). Given the enormous monetary/legal resources Rupert Murdoch has and the political influence he retains despite this massive scandal, it is preferable that these victims have ample resources and access to legal Rottweilers. So, if you’ll pardon the arrogance of my onomatopoeia; Boom.

2. Speaking of legal Rottweilers, I have already written about the pattern of celebrity stories that claim to be based on leaks from ‘friends’, but appear instead to have been based on illicitly-accessed phone messages, but I think News of the World would have been far more wary of basing a scoop solely/obviously on Brangelina’s phone messages than they would have been with your average citizen (and with good reason; the couple sued the newspaper over a later article in 2010). I suspect News of the World staff/editors retained most of what they discovered through this route and did not publish the usual level of detail until after the Pitt/Aniston break-up was public knowledge and there were enough actual blabbers around (i.e. in the bitter dispute that followed) to provide adequate cover. I expect I’ll know more once I get my hands on that October 2004 item mentioned in this article.

3. Look at the detail. The source News of the World rely on here appears to know a lot about the tone of voice people used in these intimate phone conversations. This does not look good for News of the World. This does not look good at all.

Detail: News of the World, 9 January 2005

4. Like the Danielle Jones article, this item is not only prominent (Page 9), it makes specific reference to phones. We are expected to believe that then-editor Andy Coulson somehow missed this or looked at this item (knowing the pronounced risks of litigation) and did not make any enquiries about the source.

5. Hell, if you’re the speculating type, try to imagine Glenn Mulcaire listening in to this break-up of a leading celebrity couple, and then try to guess who he might speak to about this dynamite story. Personally, if I were a greedy tabloid scumbag, I’d be talking directly to the editor if not passing on messages about how many extra zeroes this one would cost.

6. Later today, I’ll get in touch with Brad Pitt & Angelina Jolie’s London lawyers, Schillings. I’m ‘known’ to these lawyers, you know… for something completely different!!! (Sorry. Private joke. Moving on.)

7. I do hate to go on and on like a poorly-compressed MP3, but this revelation is the result of wholly independent research, and if you’d like to make sure that I have the time/funds/capacity to do more, then please donate today:

Cheers all. If there’s enough money in the kitty by early this afternoon, I can start making immediate plans for another jaunt into the British Newspaper Library early next week.

News of the World: a wake-up call for certain Conservatives

Some people in politics can be really funny about evidence… Westminster/media groupies especially so. It is not unknown for some ‘commentators’ to be so far into the role of propagandist that they will accuse personal/political enemies of criminality on nothing more than hearsay while refusing to even acknowledge solid evidence against those they support personally/politically.

(I’m sure I don’t need to name names, but I will say that, no, some apologies will never satisfy… but only while they remain half-hearted and self-serving because you’ve still got your head up your arse, you great big lumbering dipshit.)

That said, I would like to make it clear that the following is only an indicator of guilt, but it is a strong one that follows an emerging pattern; News of the World stories that claim/imply that ‘friends’ or ‘pals’ are the source of a story, when in fact the source of the story is intercepted/illicitly-accessed messages from mobile phones.

The item about Prince William that led to the conviction of Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire was just such a story, and the mistake Goodman made was to print something that could only have come from illicit interception of phone messages.

Many other such stories had earlier escaped attention because of a lingering doubt about ‘friends’ and the widely-recognised need to protect sources. On this point, I refer to the words of Gordon Brown:

“… News International who took the freedom of the press as a licence for abuse, who cynically manipulated our support of that vital freedom as their justification, and who then callously used the defence of a free press as the banner under which they marched in step, as I say, with members of the criminal underworld.” – Gordon Brown, 12 July 2011

Basically, if the newspaper claimed or implied that the source was a friend/pal and there was potentially more than one source, all the newspaper had to do was refuse to name the source, and the target was left with nowhere to go. In other words; a blatant abuse of freedom of the press to disguise criminal activity conducted by newspaper staff.

The repeated success of this defensive rampart appears to have led to a situation in the News of the World newsroom especially where confidence was so high that ‘journalists’ would make overt reference to phone calls and text messages in articles resulting from illicitly-sourced leads. This article about Danielle Jones is a stark example, and this Liz Hurley item is typical of the celebrity articles I’ve seen that appear to follow this pattern.

(Psst! A WHOPPER of a celebrity example will follow later today. Think big. No, bigger. OK, now multiply that by three.)

So, with all of that in mind, I hope that this is the moment that some especially pigheaded Tories finally start to come around on this to the point of admitting that they didn’t just get it a little bit wrong because they weren’t aware of recent evidence, but that they got it very, very wrong because they wilfully turned a blind eye to available evidence and didn’t bother looking for further evidence:

News of the World James Major exclusive, 27 November 2005

That challenge may seem odd to the casual reader, but there are some people in this world who are so tribal that even when innocent victims are involved, they won’t come fully on board until one of their own is involved.

I mean, FFS, all of this stuff is just sitting in there in the British Newspaper Library, just waiting to be found, and even now there’s only me and maybe two or three newspapers showing an interest in the material. Where are all these Conservative bloggers who brag about leading the way every chance they get? Instead of asking where the evidence is, perhaps now some of these Tories might finally be convinced to start looking at it… or start looking for it.

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[Note - As with other items recently published on Bloggerheads, this article does not appear in the database of NotW articles recently released by the Telegraph. This is the first time this article has seen the light of day since it was originally published by News of the World in November 2005. This story results from original research I conducted into the friendship between Andy Coulson and Andy Hayman and associated 'hacking' issues, and if you would like to fund more independent research into this story and others like it, please open your virtual wallet and click here.]

EXCLUSIVE: News of the World and the ‘hacking’ of Danielle Jones

Yesterday, the Telegraph published a database of News of the World articles relating to phone/text messages, including the Dowler article I blogged about yesterday morning. Like me, they’ve been doing some research at the British Newspaper Library in Colindale, and I applaud their efforts, but their collection is short one vital article, which enters the public domain this morning for the first time since it was originally published by News of the World on July 15, 2001.

Before you read this article (in the scan/graphic below), I ask that you consider the following:

1. Rebekah Wade/Brooks and Andy Coulson have repeatedly sought to shelter themselves behind a denial that they were not aware of what was going on in their own newsroom. As so many of the smoking guns have been relatively minor/diary pieces in the back pages, this tactic has been largely successful, if a little pyrrhic (i.e. leaving Wade/Brooks and Coulson in a position where they are merely incompetent as far as anybody knows, and not corrupt).

2. Scotland Yard confirm that Danielle Jones’ name and/or other details are included in relevant evidence held by police. This is just one published source:

The investigation into the death of Essex teenager Danielle Jones could be re-examined after the inquiry into the voicemail hacking scandal found that mobile phones linked to her may have been targeted by a private investigator working for the News of the World…. (Chris Bryant) told the Commons yesterday that evidence suggesting Danielle’s phone and others linked to her were targeted by Mulcaire had been discovered by Operation Weeting, the inquiry into phone hacking. Police sources confirmed details of the phones had been found and said the information was being assessed for potential impact on the original murder investigation. – Independent, 7 July 2011

Which leads us neatly to…

3. The prosecution of the killer of Danielle Jones relied a great deal on evidence involving falsified text messages sent from Danielle’s phone by the murderer (context). If staff from News of the World are found to have compromised or undermined this evidence in any way, it could conceivably lead to a challenge against the relevant conviction.

Now, take a look at the scan of the original article (below), which (a) dominated Page 11 of the newspaper, (b) is clearly based on text messages sent to Danielle Jones’ phone, (c) makes that same point ab-so-lute-ly clear in a headline that you would have to blind – or on holiday – to miss, and (d) appears to actually express disappointment that police would not allow the release of further/outgoing messages!

It is also hard to see what ‘public interest’ defence exists for the publication of these texts. It appears to me to be an entirely emotional element that served no other purpose beyond sensationalising an already traumatic event.

We are expected to believe that editors were not aware of any of this, before or after publication. This is a claim I reject, especially now that I have seen this evidence. It is also highly unlikely that Essex Police failed to raise the issue of the sensitivity of text messages with editors, because their concerns about the importance of text messages as evidence are right there in the article approved for publication.

Rebekah Wade/Brooks and/or Andy Coulson cannot have been unaware of this published article, or its origins, or of the dangerous implications. If they were given no specific warning about the use and potential consequences of ‘hacking’ by Essex Police, then serious questions need to be asked about their competence.

[Click here if you would like to fund more independent research into this story and associated tabloid shenanigans.]

Danielle Jones article in News of the World, 16 July 2002

#NotW: ‘hacking’ Liz Hurley

Word reaches me of potentially “serious consequences” for Rupert Murdoch and his empire should anyone turn up evidence of ‘hacking’ aimed at American citizens.

Will Steve Bing do?

See the closing paragraphs on this story, and see if you can guess at the likely source:

News of the World Liz Hurley exclusive - April 7 2002

Actually, I suspect almost this entire story is based on intercepted phone/text messages. What kind of friend would blab to a tabloid about a hospital visit and reward a stalker with this kind of attention?

Not this one, that’s for sure:

Hugh Grant: How I exposed hacking

News of the World: how Surrey Police responded to the ‘hacking’ of Milly Dowler

Yesterday I featured some fresh evidence on Bloggerheads that suggested News of the World had accessed Robert Thompson’s mobile phone/records in violation of a court order.

Today will be a little bit different in that (a) it is not news that Milly Dowler’s phone was ‘hacked’, and (b) I’m going to be a little more conventional about this post for reasons that should be obvious.

I’m publishing the following – a full scan of the original/relevant article as it appeared in News of the World and some analysis – so you might judge for yourself how likely it is that then-editor (Rebekah Wade, now Rebekah Brooks) and then-deputy-editor (Andy Coulson) did not know about any of it.

Why am I doing this? Because someone should have been arrested or at least cautioned in April 2002, but police declined to act, and it is only public opinion that is driving this forward. Surrey Police, London Metropolitan Police, certain Members of Parliament and even the serving Prime Minister all have (or perhaps in some cases had) a vested interest in letting Rupert Murdoch and his underlings sweep much of this under the carpet. Rebekah Wade/Brooks especially needs to be compelled to face the authorities, but we are, incredibly, still left in a position where her guilt needs to be established in the court of public opinion to some extent before any serious preliminary/investigative action is taken against her by the criminal justice system.

(Whatabouters and Murdoch Apologists: Please keep in mind that this position is entirely distinct from that of Rebekah Wade/Brooks, who in 2002 openly defied police because paedophiles were not punished/”caged” sufficiently in her view, mostly after the criminal justice system had already dealt with them.)

And so, on to the specific article in News of the World that has caused the most outrage. As far as I know, this is the first time it has appeared in the public domain since its original publication:

News of the World's Milly Dowler exclusive of April 14 2002

While it has already been reported that staff from News of the World told Surrey Police about the illegal method(s) used to obtain the material that led to this article (link), it is not until you read a key revelation in that recent report and the article itself that you are likely to realise how much police contributed to the article, and judge how much this action might be interpreted as tacit approval of the methods of the tabloid staff who had broken the law in pursuit of this lead:

It was Surrey detectives who established that the call was not intended for Milly Dowler. – Guardian, 4 July 2011

Police believe the sick hoaxer called into a recruitment agency… It is thought the hoaxer even gave the agency Milly’s real phone number. Police believe she may have got it by gaining the trust of people who knew the schoolgirl… The twisted creature also contacted TV’s Crimewatch programme, claiming to be Milly. Police say the hoaxer has hampered the investigation and previous high-profile enquiries… A senior officer involved in the hunt said last night: “Our inquiries and those of other forces have been plagued by a professional hoaxer who has much experience of the practices of police and investigation methods. The chances are extremely high that the individual concerned is a rather disturbed lady who needs care. – News of the World, 14 April 2002

I’m sensing some past history here, and some frustration that more couldn’t be done to control this reckless fantasist (hey, I can relate). That might explain some of this content offered up by police. Then again, perhaps it was more a case of police deciding to address matters with a coded message to the editor of News of the World or (more likely, in my view) much of the lecture above was aimed at the unnamed hoaxer and Rebekah Wade, and only half of it made it to print in the form of an attack on the hoaxer. (This is what tabloid scum do; they selectively edit reality, attempting to shape it to their will, and act in monstrous ways while screaming; “Look out! Behind you! MONSTER!!!!”)

Whatever the reason(s) for this material being offered to the newspaper, News of the World were in no position to publish a lecture about anybody hampering this investigation or any other. This same newspaper openly defied police in the pursuit of dozens of alleged paedophiles, complicating all sorts of police procedures and potential prosecutions (more). Later, they also hired the man who deleted messages sent to Milly Dowler’s phone (in pursuit of more ‘scoops’, i.e. money), thereby leading us to the tipping point in this scandal; the public realisation that this gave the family false hope that the then-missing girl was alive (more).

Here I will draw your attention to the heart-breaking appeal under the article, featuring Milly Dowler’s mother desperately clinging to the hope that her daughter was still alive and had perhaps run away. News of the World went on to repeatedly exploit Milly Dowler’s family in a similar fashion for weeks on the back of false hope that they themselves had generated:

The Dowler family then granted an exclusive interview to the News of the World in which they talked about their hope, quite unaware that it had been falsely kindled by the newspaper’s own intervention. Sally Dowler told the paper: “If Milly walked through the door, I don’t think we’d be able to speak. We’d just weep tears of joy and give her a great big hug.” – Guardian, 4 July 2011

While this article and the appeal underneath it may have appeared all the way back on Page 30, it should not have escaped the attention of a worthy editor, because it is a big part of the editor’s job to protect the newspaper, staff and owners by ensuring that all claims (of criminality especially) are properly sourced. However, this is a Murdoch newspaper and I have learned from personal experience that Murdoch journalists and editors do not see a problem in a poorly-sourced claim if they don’t name the target.

(SIDEBAR: Take a bow, Camilla Long of the Sunday Times, who stated as fact that Conservative MP Nadine Dorries had a stalker and rather bravely backed this up with an assertion that police were involved… without actually checking any of the detail with police, who would have told her that Dorries does not have a stalker, or even a harasser. Camilla Long and her editor later defended themselves on the basis that no name was published alongside the accusation, and it appears that the thoroughly useless PCC are prepared to side with them.)

With libel law and press regulation being in the sorry state it’s in, it is entirely feasible that a lazy editor would look at a story like this and not care about the source, because the paper was effectively shielded against any complaint the subject/target could hope to make about it.

However, I do not think it reasonable to believe that police were made aware of this illegal act involving News of the World staff and did not at least alert/warn the editor about this activity, the illegality of same and the potential impact on the investigation into Milly Dowler’s disappearance. That’s why I asked Surrey Police if they had discussed this matter with editors of that newspaper. Here’s my question, and their response:

My question:

Did the investigating officers discuss this hacking matter with editors at News of the World in an effort to at least warn them on the potential consequences of this kind of behaviour? Are you able to name which editors were warned, if any?

The ‘answer’ from Surrey Police:

The Metropolitan Police are currently investigating allegations of phone hacking and therefore it would be inappropriate for us to comment at this time.

From this point on, the argument is entirely circular; police will not comment on evidence that might implicate Rebekah Wade/Brooks, but neither will they act against her with any conviction (pun intended) while the public remain in doubt about the extent of her awareness/involvement. It has taken a week of extraordinary outrage to bring us to the point where she might be willing to take part in a police interview, but only as a witness, and not a suspect. It is blindingly obvious to all concerned that she enjoys this privilege because she remains under the protection of Rupert Murdoch.

The only way to break the circle is go public with the available evidence in an effort to convince public servants to finally serve the public (i.e. rather than cower before a powerful foreign media owner).

Tomorrow, I will publish a further scan of an article obviously involving intercepted text messages that cannot have escaped the attention of the police, or the editor(s) of News of the World.

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UPDATE (14 Oct 2011) – Police were given evidence in 2002 that News of the World had access to illegally obtained messages from Milly Dowler’s phone – but did nothing about it

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UPDATE (24 Jan 2012) – Phone hacking: News of the World journalists lied to Milly Dowler police

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NEW POST (26 Jan 2012) – News of the World: 110% certainty, the remainder fact

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