ethica incognita

Thames & Hudson used to publish photobooks; wondering if they still did, I surfed around their site and arrived at a book by one Sasha Gusov (Саша Гусов). What little I could see of it was interesting enough to have me duckduckgo for more, whereupon I learned of a (non-Thames-or-Hudson) book enticingly titled Belarus: Terra incognita. Photos from this aren’t obvious anywhere in Gusov’s website. The book’s page at Hurtwood Press (which prints and publishes what some body pays it to) also gives no samples, but does say it’s:

a collection of celebratory photographs of ordinary people living their lives in freedom, peace and happiness. […] The book has an introduction by Lord Bell and gives the lie to the western perception of this beautiful country as an autocratic dictatorship.

Oh? I hadn’t been thinking of autocracy or dictatorships. But since they were mentioned. . . . With no photos to look at, there wasn’t much to go on other than the unfamiliar name “Lord Bell”. Who might he be?

Well known in the context of Belarus, it seems. “The [Belarus] regime recently hired a UK spin doctor, Lord Timothy Bell, to polish its image abroad” (No breakthrough: Another dodgy election in Belarus, Economist, 2 October 2008). There’s more on his relationship with Belarus in ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’ gets Western PR makeover (AFP, via Google, 29 November 2008).

Could Bell perhaps be some worthy, ennobled for philanthropy, whose spin-doctoring for Belarus was fully consistent with a disinterested love of that nation and appreciation of its regime? Time to investigate further.

In December 2011, Bell was the chairman of Bell Pottinger, a PR company whose employees “talked openly about the work the firm had done with other regimes with questionable human rights records including Sri Lanka and Belarus”. They were happy to be paid to fend off pesky questions about Uzbekistan, and claimed to be able to stitch up Wikipedia articles (Caught on camera: top lobbyists boasting how they influence the PM, The Independent, 6 December 2011). The claims about Wikipedia have been verified (Wikipedia founder attacks Bell Pottinger for ‘ethical blindness’, The Independent, 8 December 2011).

In 2006, “veteran fixer Tim Bell” agreed with the Saudi regime that an investigation by the Serious Fraud Office into “allegations that huge Saudi bribes had been paid by arms group BAE Systems to get weapons deals” was not necessary (Brutal politics lesson for corruption investigators, Guardian, 16 December 2006).

Bell Pottinger has done much work for the Bahrain regime (PR watch: Bell Pottinger Private, Bahrain Watch).

Hard to avoid the suspicion that Bell is happy to shill for anyone. But as he points out, while he’s not a priest, he does know the difference between right and wrong (Professional liar Lord Tim Bell with a fawning Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight). That’s good to know. Indeed, “he would not work for the Labour Party because he would lack the conviction to do so, and so believes he would do a bad job.” Though he did have the conviction to work for Pinochet, the South African National Party, and the mysteriously affluent Mark Thatcher (Godfather of spin with his fingerprints all over history, The Observer, 17 December 2006).

Bell signs the “Introduction” (preface) to the book “Lord Bell” — I’d thought plain “Bell” was good form for somebody who’s not a screaming lord — and unashamedly describes himself as “Former political advisor to Margaret Thatcher”. He was variously indiscreet in his youth (Do unethical lobbyists feel any pain at the dirty, seedy role they play in politics?, The Independent, 7 December 2011) — was the Thatcher association merely another such indiscretion? Back in 1994, when he “[had] a splendid house in Belgravia and [drove] a Bentley”, he was asked “Is Lady Thatcher still your heroine?” and responded:

Certainly. I have met some remarkable people in my life, but she was the greatest. She was in touch with the mood of the people more than any PM has ever been, and she freed the people from the burdens of the state.

(Just don’t mention the Spam fritters, The Independent, 24 May 1994)

For both instances of “the people”, read “the people living splendidly in Belgravia”, and Bell’s observation starts to make sense.

But back to the Belarus book. Further digging reveals more photos from it: some here at the book’s designer, others here (not obviously an organ of Fox “News”). These have a childish kind of humour and aren’t bad. On the cover is a leafy figure that you might momentarily take as a character from some pagan festival — until you suddenly notice his large weapon. The book then starts with a preface full of truisms, non sequiturs and falsities by a professional propagandist who has publicly succeeded in deluding himself. I can only infer that after taking the money for the book, Gusov did his best to turn it into a joke. Smart move.


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