Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

What you saw this week were the first signs of cardiac arrest at Bell Pottinger, the dark arts spin doctors whose client list includes such odious scumbags as Augusto Pinochet and the family of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

It is somewhat ironic that its demise has been caused not by creating fake propaganda videos for the US Pentagon meant to dupe Iraqis, or selling "access" to British politicians. Instead, it is Bell Pottinger’s work for the Gupta family — sowing the "white monopoly capital" narrative in SA to deflect attention from the pernicious capture of state institutions by President Jacob Zuma’s friends — that has been the fatal blow.

On Tuesday, the UK’s Public Relations & Communications Association (PRCA) terminated Bell Pottinger’s membership — the most serious sanction it has ever levied. It said the firm’s campaign was, "by any reasonable standard of judgment, likely to inflame racial discord in SA".

It also sent its ruling to PR associations in 54 countries, including SA, who may follow suit.

The ruling doesn’t shut Bell Pottinger down entirely — but it almost does.

Francis Ingham, who heads the PRCA, told the Financial Mail: "There are two types of PR agencies: the ones regulated by us who are ethical and professional, and those who aren’t regulated by us, who are not ethical and professional."

In the wake of the ruling, Bell Pottinger’s clients can’t seem to fire it fast enough.

On Tuesday alone, banking group HSBC severed ties, as did British construction firm Carillion and another UK bank CYBG. That same day, Bell Pottinger’s 27% shareholder, Chime Communications, confirmed it had ditched its stake too. And all this, barely hours after Bell Pottinger’s CEO James Henderson (52) quit last weekend.

Ingham said he was proud that his organisation took "a tough decision to expel probably the most famous PR company in the world" from its ranks. He’s not wrong: Bell Pottinger may not be the largest, but it’s easily the most well-known, even if infamous is probably a more apt word.

Ingham said that in 10 years as head of the PR body, Bell Pottinger’s work for the Guptas was "easily the worst I’ve seen". "The work was so reprehensible, so obviously immoral, and so clearly outside the code of conduct, our committee felt this was the only choice."

Though it seems wrong to celebrate the imminent demise of a company, it’s hard to feel sympathy for anyone at the slimy firm, so destructive for SA was their work for the Guptas.

This week, the UK’s Mail on Sunday detailed how Heather Kerzner, ex-wife of the sun king Sol Kerzner, had invested a large sum into Bell Pottinger as a "modern-day dowry" for her fiancé, Henderson, in April. That wedding is still meant to take place in November.

Kerzner was quoted as saying: "I would never invest in a company that would do anything to harm SA or its people. The impact on both of us [including her fiancé] has been horrendous."

To some extent, Bell Pottinger has borne the brunt of anger over state capture as it is the only entity in the entire saga to be held accountable. It is a proxy for public fury at the Guptas.

But Bell Pottinger’s poor judgment has torpedoed the careers of many in London. It’ll be hard for Victoria Geoghegan, for example, who led the campaign, to find work again. Henderson will also struggle, partly because his "apology" for this mess rang particularly hollow.

Ingham says he didn’t believe Henderson’s apology was "terribly sincere". But he adds: "I’m sure he’ll have a wonderful career as a house husband" to Kerzner.

When Bell Pottinger inevitably croaks, it’ll provide some consolation for those demanding accountability for state capture. With prosecutions boss Shaun Abrahams grazing pliantly in some far-flung field, and the Hawks doing their scrupulous best to avoid doing their real job, this is at least some small victory. We should savour it.

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