Security gaurds try to prevent photographs being taken, outside property owned by The Guptas, in Saxonwold, Johannesburg. Picture: ALON SKUY/THE TIMES
Security gaurds try to prevent photographs being taken, outside property owned by The Guptas, in Saxonwold, Johannesburg. Picture: ALON SKUY/THE TIMES

One of the first lessons journalism students were taught in my day was that there is no such thing as objectivity.

It was all designed to shock the starry-eyed youngsters out of their naive belief that they were going to change the world simply by telling the truth. The problem with telling the truth in an age of fake news is that it's increasingly complicated to extract.

Information nowadays moves at the speed of data. Once information is in the public domain, it's very difficult to re-establish the facts, although not impossible, as shown recently by MiWay, which found itself at the sharp end of manipulated public opinion.

Social media has created an environment in which vested interests can flourish. It's nothing short of ironic, therefore, that Bell Pottinger, which until very recently dictated much of the news agenda in South Africa, is now a pariah.

This week the company publicly disclosed the genesis of its business relationship with the Guptas. It's only doing so because clients are cancelling its retainers and international calls for legal sanction against the firm are growing.

Veteran South African anti-apartheid activist Lord Peter Hain, in the country this week, has vowed to raise the issue in the UK parliament. He has little time for company founder Tim Bell, also a member of the House of Lords and a former adviser to Margaret Thatcher.

Bell this week admitted to being instrumental in netting the Guptas as clients. He told the BBC the firm's role went beyond the manipulation of facts, to creating the news agenda by organising marches and other events dressed up as economic emancipation. It was grotesque, but the messaging found a fertile breeding ground. Bell, who resigned last year from the firm that still bears his name, claimed one of the reasons he left was the way in which the company was portraying South Africa.

His fingerprints are all over the relationship. He saw no contradiction, for example, between Tony Gupta hiring him to boost the family's chances of getting contracts from which he claimed they were excluded due to the colour of their skin, and Gupta's boasts about his great wealth.

That's why the 200 000 e-mails linked to the Guptas are so crucial in establishing the truth about how information has been manipulated for a commercial agenda.

If you lie, especially in the digital age, you will be caught out. Even good liars contradict themselves eventually.

Bell Pottinger CEO James Henderson expressed regret this week. Not for the work his firm did, but for ever getting caught up in the sordid mess it helped create in the first place. Would he pay back the fees received from the Guptas to make amends for the destructive role his company played in manipulating public debate? No, came the terse response. Fixing the mess Bell Pottinger created was going to cost it money, he said. Here's the problem for Bell Pottinger. Any credibility it once had is shot. Who will ever believe anything it says on behalf of any client ever again? Bell Pottinger might as well close up shop.

Whitfield is a public speaker on the political economy and an award-winning financial journalist, writer and broadcaster

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