Spin and the mechanics of evil



COMING clean? Lord Timothy Bell, of Bell Pottinger. Photograph courtesy

AN ELDERLY WHITE man in a cardigan sits and smokes with his back to the camera, in the opening scene of Richard Poplak and Diana Neillie’s exceptionally slick piece of filmic journalism Influence. Lord Timothy Bell may look benign but with his amorality on his sleeve and a story that will make your hair stand on end, this chap could sit alongside the Devil in the wicked stakes. The Encounters film festival, which is this year online and free of charge, opens on 20 August with this detailed and riveting account of the rise and fall of British public relations company Bell Pottinger.

This true tale of the advertising executive who, with the brilliance of his pen and an unashamed eye for the money, had, at one long moment, the power to seismically shift how people behave in the world and what they consider truth. The work, which takes us all the way back to the 1970s, the rise and rise of Margaret Thatcher and the potency of Saatchi & Saatchi, is beautifully constructed and flawlessly edited. There is not a moment where your attention will wane or one that allows you to ponder what you’re being told.

And there lies the rub. In this incisive documentary of how Bell Pottinger destroyed itself through its own hubris and a messy entanglement with South African politics, your understanding of the whole publicity industry is dirtied. Here are people who have had the effrontery to ramp up the vague immoral underpinnings of the philosophy of advertising all the way into the war-mongering heart of government spin, weapons dealers and the fomenting of racial hatred.

With many talking heads, but no bland moments, the film has an urgency that will raise your blood pressure and get you angry – and influenced. But it does not offer insight into the other side of the publicity industry: the good guys. Are there still clean publicists in this world? Rather, it is a tale that puts the likes of Matthew Weiner, the creator of the series about the advertising industry, Mad Men, or film director Stephen Poliakoff who has played with stories of publicists in his work, into the shade. And what’s more, it is true. We in South Africa have the scars and bruises of the Bell Pottinger-coined phrase ‘White Monopoly Capital’ to show for it. This phrase came to slip so smarmily and glibly from the lips and implicit belief systems of the likes of disgraced former president Jacob Zuma, Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema and other influential black leaders, to say nothing of Andile Mngxitama, of the Black First Land First movement.

While the piece, bringing in all the players, including Daily Maverick journalist Marianne Thamm who broke the story and Democratic Alliance hero Phumzile van Damme who went head to head with James Henderson of Bell Pottinger, to mention but a few, is completely compelling, the story doesn’t have a comforting ending. On the one hand, it holds a mirror up to you, who in your daily behaviour as a consumer, is vulnerable to how pervasive spin is. It reflects your naiveté when you buy into the skilfully crafted phrases tossed at you, and you earnestly adhere to them as though they were gospel. Documenting the trajectory of Bell Pottinger’s work, through Iraq and Chile, Saudi Arabia and Russia, from the days of Brutus jeans and Dunlop sports gear, the narrative leads up to the terrifying, ubiquitous phenomenon of fake news, which has become so omnipresent in our contemporary world, that the value of the truth is lost. And then, what?

  • Influence is written and directed by Richard Poplak and Diana Neillie. Produced by Bob Moore and Neil Brandt, it is edited by Ryan Mullins and features creative input by Glauco Bermudez and Mark Õ Fearghail (cinematography), Florencia di Concilio (music selection) and Benoît Dame and Catherine van der Donckt (sound). It opens the Encounters International South African Documentary Film Festival on 20 August. The festival, which is on line and without charge this year, runs until 30 August 2020.

7 replies »

Leave a Reply