Groundviews

Bell Pottinger and Sri Lanka: A trail of spin doctoring and whitewashing

Aside from articles appearing last Sunday in the Sunday Times and the Sunday Leader, mainstream media in Sri Lanka has been curiously silent over recent revelations in the British media on the government’s connections with the infamous British PR firm Bell Pottinger. On 6th December, The Independent ran a story on how Bell Pottinger had written the President’s speech to the UN after the end of the war in 2009. The article noted,

“Senior executives at Bell Pottinger told undercover reporters that they were so influential that they had written a key speech given by the Sri Lankan President to the United Nations.

During the address by President Mahinda Rajapaksa last year, which the company said was used in preference to one prepared by the Sri Lankan foreign ministry, the President suggested rules governing the humanitarian conduct of war should be re-examined. He also described his troops’ action against Tamil Tiger separatists as humanitarian.

President Rajapaksa also claimed in the speech that a Commission established by the government to look into the last years of the civil war, was giving ‘full expression to the principles of accountability’.”

A BBC report on the expose noted that “Bell Pottinger chairman David Wilson was secretly recorded as saying that Mr Rajapaksa had chosen the company’s version of the speech in preference to one drafted by his own foreign ministry”. The BBC report also flags that according to the Government’s own admission, Sri Lankan taxpayers have footed a bill of over 535 million rupees a year (US$ 4.7 million) to hire Bell Pottinger’s services to whitewash the country’s ignoble human rights record. Ironically, it is this same company that openly admits to undercover journalists from The Independent that the Government’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) is fundamentally flawed.

As again noted by the BBC, the President’s media chief, Bandula Jayasekera (whose own ‘dark arts’ were flagged in web media after the CHOGM meeting in Australia), would not comment on the Independent’s report, dismissing it as a “scurrilous article” by the British media intended to “create trouble”. Unsurprisingly, there is no official comment from government to date on the sting operation’s video, which the Independent’s article was based on. The comments on Sri Lanka appear after around the 2:39 mark.

Bell Pottinger’s modus operandi to doctor information on the web and even go to the extent of creating and maintaining third party blogs that looked independent have raised the ire of Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s founder, and other more ethical PR firms. As Keith Trivitt, Associate Director, Public Relations Society of America avers,

“It’s not just that these tactics are unethical and potentially illegal. It is also that they are amateur, crude and very often do not work. Not only is it a disservice to a client for a firm to boast of its success with such outdated tactics, but it also takes the PR industry back several years in terms of our professionalism and value to businesses.”

Groundviews has over the years covered Sri Lanka’s dealings with Bell Pottinger and how, in one instance, the firm even sent out a Press Release on behalf of our Foreign Ministry from an employee’s email account. Read,

For details of The Independent’s sting operation on Bell Pottinger click here. For the transcript of David Wilson’s comments on Sri Lanka, click here.