Uzbekistan: British PR Firms Eager to Flack for Dictatorship
The British daily The Independent has an intriguing story about a special undercover investigation: some public relations firms would be eager to accept lucrative lobbying contracts from the government of Uzbekistan, despite its horrible reputation for torture, imprisonment of dissidents, and forced child labor.
Journalists from The Independent's Bureau of Investigative Reporting posed as agents of the fictitious "Azimov Group" of British and East European investors in cotton textiles who said they had been tasked by Uzbekistan to help clean up its image.
The journalists said that out of 10 London firms, two refused to do business, several others didn't reply, and five, including Bell Pottinger appeared "keen to work" for a "£1m-plus" fee.
In the film clip accompanying the article, we hear the disguised reporter saying that the Uzbek president wasn't happy about his own Wikipedia entry or the one for Uzbekistan: what could the firm do to help? A representative of Bell Pottinger spoke of "all sorts of dark arts" that could be deployed such as Google-bombing to change the order of search results. Such firms also create fictitious blogs, manipulate parliamentarians, and -- as the agent cautioned -- do things that they couldn't put in their written presentation because if it "got out" it would be "embarrassing."
Says The Independent regarding the investigative reporters' account:
Their claims – which were secretly recorded – will add to mounting concerns that an absence of regulation has made London the global centre for "reputation laundering", where lobbyists work behind the scenes on behalf of the world's most controversial regimes.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged to tackle lobbying which he says has "tainted our politics for too long."
The story is reminiscent of the efforts of Harper's investigative journalist Ken Silverstein, author of an expose published in 2008, Turkmeniscam: How Washington Lobbyists Fought to Flack for a Stalinist Dictatorship.