Bell Pottinger: rotten apple or an industry that needs to look in the mirror?

The Bell Pottinger case has lifted the lid on dark practices in an industry that is often presented as highly respectable and making a valuable contribution to the UK's economy.

Is Bell Pottinger one bad apple or the tip of the iceberg, asks Robert Barrington
Is Bell Pottinger one bad apple or the tip of the iceberg, asks Robert Barrington

The PRCA is to be commended for expelling Bell Pottinger and putting stringent conditions on the company's re-admission.

And we must remember that many communications professionals have nothing to do with facilitating or covering up corruption.

But the suggestion that this one company was a rotten apple, and the rest of the industry is squeaky clean, is wholly unconvincing.

During the last decade, a lot of work has been done to track the growing use of London and other global centres by corrupt individuals and undesirable regimes.

Read next: Bell Pottinger scandal may have strengthened British PR industry

They use London to launder money; but also to launder their reputations.

What could be better if you have stolen money from a state budget (like health, defence or education) in your own country, than to spend it out of sight of those you have stolen it from, in London, Paris, New York, Shanghai or Dubai?

Buy a fine property, a football club, possibly a newspaper; educate your children in private schools and top universities; build up political connections to insulate yourself and others like you from annoying laws or foreign policies.

PR specialists and law firms are on hand to help with this.

Even better, they can help launder the reputation of the whole country from which you stole the money – making crooks in public office look like defenders of freedom while the opposition are agitators and terrorists.

It might sound like fantasy.

But it is all to be seen in the detail of Bell Pottinger and similar cases, like the London-based campaigns to defend governments as diverse as the Maldives and Bahrain.

The 'rotten apple' defence is often rolled out in corruption cases, but very seldom proves true.

Bell Pottinger may be a rotten apple but it could equally well be the tip of a very unsavoury iceberg, revealed because its behaviour was so outrageous that it could not be tolerated, even by those who were claiming a bare few months ago that this kind of thing could never happen.

The evidence all points in one direction: London has become a major centre of global reputation-laundering for corrupt individuals and regimes, and some in the PR industry are wholly complicit in this.

How many firms are involved, and how deep does this go? It is almost impossible to tell.

That is why the industry needs a trade body or bodies willing to look hard at the industry and check whether it is operating to the standards that society finds acceptable.

If the industry is unable or unwilling to raise standards itself, inevitably they will be imposed from the outside.

The PRCA has made a good start, but now is the time for the industry to launch a thorough and independent look at itself, not to try and defend the indefensible.

In the light of the Bell Pottinger scandal, all eyes are on the UK's PR industry to declare where it stands.

Robert Barrington is the executive director of Transparency International

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