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Diana Neille & Richard Poplak’s story of weaponised communication focuses on the infamous Lord Tim Bell and his associates, known for their controversial geopolitical spin-doctoring.
Bell started his career in advertising with Saatchi and Saatchi, and had an affinity for difficult briefs and “people with problems”, as he liked to call them. He crafted campaigns for unpopular politicians, dictators, disgraced companies and celebrities, in the same way he created product branding – by being concise and brutal.
Those old enough to remember Margaret Thatcher winning the 1979 election in Britain will also recall Bell’s campaign slogan: Labour Isn’t Working. At the time Britain had a million people without work. Two years after Thatcher’s win, seven million people were unemployed.
Bell also ran campaigns for Chilean leader Augusto Pinochet, an ally of Thatcher’s and murderer of over 40,000 of his own citizens. In 1987 Bell cofounded Bell Pottinger, which quickly became the most influential reputation-management company in the world. That’s not a compliment.
Not all of Bell’s campaigns were successful: he was unable to secure the South African election for incumbent F.W. de Clerk when he ran against Nelson Mandela in 1994.
“Tim Bell was a man whose moral compass lacked a needle.”
20 years later, Bell’s return to South Africa to help another corrupt leader led to the downfall of Bell Pottinger. Its campaign for the benefit of former president Jacob Zuma, to draw attention away from South African governmental corruption with race-baiting fake news, was exposed. The fallout plunged BP’s reputation past the point where even their own spin-doctoring could retrieve it. The company was forced to close its doors.
That campaign in South Africa is the central focus of another Doc Edge 2020 selection, Rehad Desai’s How to Steal a Country.
Using a fascinating blend of archival footage and interviews with Bell and the people who worked with, for, or against him, filmmakers Diana Neille and Richard Poplak conduct an impressively thorough investigation into the politicization of modern communication.
Bell’s methods gave rise to the cavalier irresponsibility of the current fake news era. Bell Pottinger developed many of the digital tools to wage propaganda wars and become fundamental in undermining democracy – tools which are now regularly used to interfere in democratic elections.
Described as “a glib, slippery customer to the last”, Bell died while the film was in post – not that he’d likely have been on the guest list for its premiere at Sundance in January.