Atul Gupta. Picture: MARTIN RHODES
Atul Gupta. Picture: MARTIN RHODES

THE Gupta family has brought in heavy firepower in an apparent effort to burnish its image.

The controversial business family has enlisted the services of a London-based lobbying and public relations firm, whose executives once claimed they were capable of drowning out negative coverage and influencing public opinion through unorthodox means.

Bell Pottinger — formed by British public relations guru Timothy Bell — this week confirmed it had the Guptas’ Oakbay Investments as a client.

The Gupta family has become synonymous with the concept of "state capture", as politicians and commentators point to their businesses and relationships with President Jacob Zuma and his son Duduzane Zuma as conduits for improper influence over the government.

Mr Bell is regarded as one of the main figures behind the Conservative Party’s general election successes.

He coined Margaret Thatcher’s landmark Labour Isn’t Working campaign, and advised the future prime minister on interview techniques, appearance, clothing, and even hairstyle choices.

He was knighted in 1991.

Mr Bell is no stranger to South African politics. He worked during the struggle days with Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosothu Buthelezi and later on FW de Klerk’s 1994 election campaign.

Victoria Geoghegan, partner, financial and corporate at Bell Pottinger, said Mr Bell was not involved "in the day-to-day-activity of the account".

She said the contract with Oakbay was just one of the many contracts it had with companies on the continent.

Bell Pottinger’s directors were caught on tape boasting of the "dark art" strategies they employed by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

They told the journalists — posing as agents of the repressive Uzbekistan government needing to market their cotton industry where child labour is used — that they were able to drown out bad press, and improve a client’s Wikipedia entries, among other things.

The reporters exposed the directors suggesting the company could "drown" out negative coverage of human rights violations and child labour; and they had a team that "sorts" negative Wikipedia coverage of clients.

The Bell Pottinger directors also boasted about their access to Prime Minister David Cameron and other senior UK government officials at No 10 Downing Street.

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