Richard Poplak and Diana Neille are the directors of Influence, a documentary about the business of disinformation streaming as part of this year’s Hot Docs Film Festival.
In December, 2019, four months after his death, Lord Timothy Bell earned one of the greatest election victories of his career. Diagnosed the previous year with vascular parkinsonism, the notorious spin doctor was too sick to have participated in Boris Johnson’s rapid-fire Conservative campaign, which resulted in a landslide that buried under it generations of British electoral precedent. Lord Bell’s job, however, was already done: In 1979, helping to craft the original Conservative Party insurgency for Margaret Thatcher, he laid the groundwork for Mr. Johnson’s ascension.
A right-wing grandee who considered Ms. Thatcher the apex of British leadership, Lord Bell admired Mr. Johnson and liked much of what he said, especially as it pertained to the Brexit phenomenon. The feeling appears to have been mutual. Writing in the order of service at Lord Bell’s memorial on Feb. 27, Mr. Johnson honoured his political forebear as “a great servant of the Conservative Party, who played a huge role in making us electable by the broadest cross-section of society.
“The party in government today owes him so much.”
Tellingly, Mr. Johnson wrote those words only a few weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic swept through Britain and only two months before he himself contracted the virus, after famously proclaiming, "I was at a hospital the other night where I think there were a few coronavirus patients, and I shook hands with everybody, you’ll be pleased to know.”
This was not merely a vaudevillian act of Homer Simpson-esque daftness, but rather a lesson in how Big Man governance functions in the 21st century. (Mr. Johnson’s stint in intensive care has, of course, resulted in a popularity surge.) The new Prime Minister practises the type of sound-bite, slogan-generating conservatism Lord Bell played a crucial role in establishing almost half a century ago. Indeed, much of what is happening across the world today – the dominance of expert-resistant “populists”; the endless gyre of weaponized disinformation; the hyper-fragility of democratic institutions – can be explained by Lord Bell’s remarkable, sui generis career. Not only did he assist in creating the Iron Lady; he also went on to help pioneer Western-style geopolitical public relations, the high-stakes game of transforming politicians and their ideas into marketable products, available to the highest bidder.
Good old boys vs. the toffs
Lord Bell was not a theorist, nor was he an academic or an intellectual. So how did he become such a formative figure in the modern influence industry? The answer is as simple as it is inculpatory: He was a brilliant salesman. He earned fame in London as an advertising executive, helping to co-found the legendary British ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi in 1970. Along with a number of other luminaries, brothers Charles and Maurice Saatchi invigorated the stodgy British advertising business, bringing a cocaine-infused sensibility to an industry lulled by lunchtime martinis and half-decent claret. “One of the key differences about the way Saatchi & Saatchi operated was that they always had an eye on how the public relations angle …[would] make us famous, as well as the client famous,” former Saatchi & Saatchi managing director Ron Leagas told us in an interview in London last year.
As the classic Ferrari-driving, smooth-talking accounts man, Lord Bell never wrote any copy. His skill was convincing clients to adopt campaigns that were daring enough to be considered revolutionary. He was so ebullient that, in the words of advertising legend Sir John Hegarty, “dogs would cross the road to be petted by him." By the time Saatchi & Saatchi unexpectedly won the Conservative Party account in 1978, the firm had pushed the bounds of good taste enough to be considered a controversial choice. As the only true blue Tory in the Saatchi office at the time, Lord Bell was tipped to lead the account. He and Ms. Thatcher forged an immediate bond, commencing a platonic love affair that would last until her death in 2013. Together they won big in 1979, and then again in 1983 and 1987. Their success was later described by journalist Mark Hollingsworth, Lord Bell’s biographer, as “a right-wing revolution.”
By no means the first adviser to skulk around a powerful leader’s office, Lord Bell, like Ms. Thatcher, came from a working-class background. United against the toffocracy, they were determined to shake up both the structure and, in consort with their Ronald Reagan-led cousins across the pond, the very nature of conservatism. “What we really did was take the same discipline that we used to advertise a product to advertise the Conservative Party,” Lord Bell told us before his death. (The extensive interview was for a forthcoming documentary about the business of disinformation, called Influence.)
While Ms. Thatcher and Lord Bell had nothing to do with creating neoliberalism’s precepts, nor were they its intellectual fulcrum, they were vastly successful in creating the atmosphere within which neoliberalism thrived. They employed one of the world’s most powerful bully pulpits to promulgate an ideological framework that has become so ingrained that it is no longer the preserve of just conservative governments, but of ostensibly left-leaning, liberal-dominated countries such as Canada, as well.
And yet there is a contradiction at work here. For Lord Bell, who loathed the European Union almost as much as he did organized labour, there was the lingering question of British sovereignty, which had been undermined for years by unelected Germans wearing skinny suits in Brussels. With great prescience, Lord Bell understood that Brexit would not come about by arm-wrestling European bureaucrats over sheep-shearing regulations, but through a successfully prosecuted communications war between the elites in London – the very cohort whom neoliberalism helped empower – and the common folk toiling outside the City’s walls, for whom the globalizing effects of neoliberalism had proved unsatisfactory.
Both Lord Bell and Ms. Thatcher considered the U.K.’s participation in the EU a distasteful political compromise, a black mark on their Little Britain conservatism. In 2016, Brexit arrived as a veritable religious event. Lord Bell revealed to us that he was not particularly impressed by the Leave campaign, perhaps because he didn’t run it. But its legacy is clearer in hindsight (and especially in the throes of a polarizing global pandemic): Brexit foretold a dismantling of the whole globalization project, which used the now-standard tactics of disinformation and chicanery to occlude any possibility of voters making an informed or rational choice.
The dismantling has only accelerated since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
The mendacity machine
Lying is older than speech; propaganda is as old as politics. But there was something new about the disinformation tools employed during the Remain/Leave campaign. Brexit helped weaponize the “social” shareability of Twitter and Facebook, which mass-marketed lies with a speed that was previously unthinkable. Once again, across the pond in the United States, there was a deafening echo: The idea of “fake news” was ingrained deep inside the public imaginarium by Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign, whether created by the president-to-be himself, his surrogates or foreign actors spoiling for chaos.
It’s important to remember that, while Mr. Trump and Brexit may have been surprising to some, they were by no means black swan events – for Lord Bell, they barely warranted raising an eyebrow. While he remained a lifelong Luddite, his career coincided with advancements in what is now termed “behavioural science,” a term used to describe the discipline that measures how crowds behave in relation to certain stimuli. In the late 1980s and ’90s, the field was given a boost by another Saatchi & Saatchi alumnus, Nigel Oakes, who went on to found the Behavioural Dynamics Institute and, later, Strategic Communications Laboratories Group (SCL Group) – parent company to the notorious and now-defunct Cambridge Analytica.
“The answer to influence,” Mr. Oakes told us, “lies in the audience.” Individual behaviour doesn’t matter; it’s what the herd does that counts. Combine these advancements with the outcome of the 9/11 attacks, which served as a catalyst for a new era of knowledge capture. Legislation introduced in the United States, Britain and elsewhere ceded vast power not only to governments, but also to corporations, giving them the right to harvest and retain data “for our own safety and security.” Then came the rise of Google and, later, Facebook, whose entire business models were based on “behavioural surplus,” the name given to the highly valuable raw material that is captured every time we use one of their services, to be refined into “big data” and sold to their advertisers for profit.
The human species is now roughly divided into groups identified by political sensibility and consumption habits, and it is the job of influence technology to guide these collectives according to the requirements of the client, be it a company, a political party or a government. Lord Bell liked the idea of the individual, so long as he or she voted for and behaved as a Tory. He also said that the best way to win an election was to buy it. And while many of the influencers who succeeded him were equally dismissive of the notion of democracy based on individual preference, the industry came to see the voting public as massive blocs or “audiences” whom they were able to sway according to the specifics of their brief. This is exactly why influence technology is so damaging to democracy – it doesn’t provide any space for the whims of individual humans. As the academic Shoshana Zuboff notes in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, “It is no longer enough to automate information flows about us; the goal now is to automate us.”
In this maelstrom of science-based influence, amazing possibilities awaited those willing to exploit it. But there are other factors. Lord Bell understood that the traditional liberal establishment was so out of touch with the spiritual politics of the fringe that they would end up blundering their way into uselessness. Mr. Johnson’s victory last December was a result of Labour totally misunderstanding the fact that rural and working-class Englanders didn’t want a wealthy liberal from London telling them how to behave in front of foreign workers. This disconnect proved fatal for Labour at the polls, just as it did for Democrats three years previously. In his many hours with us, Lord Bell all but ordained this eventuality. After all, he helped engineer the conditions under which it would become possible.
You are the champions
Lord Bell had nothing to do with running either Brexit or Trump 2016, which is somewhat surprising given how prolific he was within the global influence sphere. Shortly after his work with Ms. Thatcher in the ‘80s, he took his political advisory show, Lowe Bell, on the road, pioneering the dark art of geopolitical public relations for the likes of the Augusto Pinochet Foundation in Chile. Later, as co-founder of Bell Pottinger, he took a job working for Asma al-Assad in Syria, and for several other Middle Eastern regimes, spit-shining their reputations during the brutal crackdowns of the Arab revolutions. The company was retained by the Pentagon after the Iraq invasion in 2003, during which they cashed one of the largest cheques ever paid for a PR job (US$540-million). Lord Bell was the shadowy adviser to shadowy advisers, and from its founding in 1998 to its demise in 2017, Bell Pottinger landed contract after contract from corrupt governments, arms dealers, oil merchants and multinationals, building a massive web of influence backed by a large and successful global operation on the foundations of the company’s “go anywhere, do anything” doctrine.
Then, just as Brexit was gathering momentum in Britain, Bell Pottinger was retained to run an expensive disinformation campaign in South Africa. Working for a trio of brothers named the Guptas, who were key players in then-South African president Jacob Zuma’s kleptocratic patronage network, Bell Pottinger earned £100,000 a month stoking racial tension in a country well known for such things. The campaign was meant to provide cover for Zuma Inc.’s limitless corruption, but it was so dangerous and risible that, after news of the campaign broke during an investigative exposé, Bell Pottinger was expelled from the London-based Public Relations and Communications Association. Its clients fled as it failed to manage its own plummeting reputation and the firm was bankrupted. In the space of five months, Lord Bell became yesterday’s man.
Still, his DNA is everywhere. We have now leaped seamlessly to the COVID-19 crisis, and it’s worth asking how a global public health emergency has turned into a boilerplate battle between “left” and “right.” The short answer is that influencers across the world have learned the lessons of the past several years well – a chaos-inducing information glut creates the perfect conditions under which to sow fear, manipulate democratic processes and influence people. Following his “battle” with COVID-19, and despite his horrendous handling of the crisis, Mr. Johnson still enjoys the support of the majority of Britain. Lord Bell abhorred the icky sentimentality that defines British culture – exemplified by a Queen recording of You Are the Champions for national health care workers. But he understood this sentimentality was eminently exploitable. As he told us, the British people respond best to the most powerful emotion: fear. Politics is now all fear, and the influence industry no longer drives political contestation. It has replaced politics entirely.
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