The lobbyists, the Russians, Google and “wife beater”

Prologue

My attention is drawn to an article written by lobbyist Tim Allan. The Guardian’s Nick Watt picked it up in a story entitled “Ed Miliband leadership attacked by former Blair Aide”. Allan talks of Ed Miliband’s “anti business rhetoric”; presumably in reference to the conference speech that introduced the term “predators”. Mr Allan will no doubt know that many in the Labour Party believe there has been a wilful misrepresentation of what Ed Miliband actually said in that speech. I’m sure some colleagues will draw the conclusion that Allan is compounding the situation in his article.

I don’t think it unreasonable, in fact I see it as desirable, that political leaders point out that companies that always act in the short term interests of shareholders, rather than long term interests of the country’s economy, are acting in a predatory manner.

Portland Communications

So, interest aroused, I took a look at Mr Allan’s company, Portland Communications. And after taking a look, I’ve concluded that it was unwise for Mr Allan to draw attention to himself. Last month, Bell Pottinger were exposed for doctoring the Wikipedia entries of their clients, “violating multiple guidelines and rules” according to Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. I fear Mr Allan’s company may have done the same.

Here is the current list of clients for Portland Communications. PR agencies who sign up to the APPC code of conduct have to register them every three month. To be thorough, I’ve produced a spreadsheet of previous clients too, based on the company’s quarterly reports to the APPC. I had a wry smile when Sky TV appeared on the register.

Yet the company that first jumped off the page at me was “Anheuser-Busch InBev”. They are the giant brewing company that owns and produces the Stella Artois brand of lager. I took a look at Wikipedia. Something interesting popped up.

On the face of it, it seems that Portland have at least two connections on Wikipedia. The first is a user account called ‘Portlander10′ and the second is the IP address 83.244.252.242. A reverse DNS lookup of this IP address resolves to mx9.portland-communications.com and the IP address also crops up as cross referencing against the same edits as the ‘Portlander10′ account.

The ‘Portlander10′ account also set up the Wikipedia page for Portland Communications, created links from both the pages of Tim Allan and fellow Portland staffer former political editor of the Sun, George Pascoe-Watson to the Portland-Communications Wikipedia page.

Yet more interesting, ‘Portlander 10′ also removed reference to Stella Artois from the Wikipedia page entitled ‘Wife-beater’ and replaced it with a generic reference to lager or beer. This is factually inaccurate because in Britain, unpleasant a term as it is, Stella Artois is known to many as “wife-beater”. The term isn’t used generally to describe all lagers or beers. Interestingly the reference to wife-beater remains on the Wikipedia page for Stella Artois itself after it looks like sharp eyed Wikipedians spotted the edit and reversed it, only for it later to be completely removed by someone at the 83.244.252.242 IP address to then 3 minutes later undo their deletion – perhaps they thought someone might notice?

Stella Artois seems to have a huge advertising budget. This year, the powerful brand won awards for the campaign “she is a thing of beauty”. http://www.campaignlive.co.uk/news/1109369/

Maybe this is why ‘portlander10′ felt they should remove the “wife beater” phrase. If it subsequently transpires that ‘portlander10′ is linked to the lobbying firm of the same name, then there is a potential PR disaster that outweighs the risk of breaking Wikipedia’s editing rules. In deleting the phrase, or rather, in being caught deleting the phrase, “portlander10″ risks the integrity of the whole advertising campaign as attention is brought to the contrast of the “She is a thing of beauty” message vs the pejorative term “wife beater”. It’s not quite a Gerald Ratner moment but it’s not far off.

There is a more serious issue though. For some time now, party leaders – all three of them – have expressed concern about lobbyists, particularly those paid to promote the interests of foreign governments. Bell Pottinger came under pressure after the very impressive expose by the Bureau of Investigative journalism and the Independent newspaper just before Christmas.

Tim Allan’s Portland Communications works for at least two foreign governments: Russia and Kazakhstan. Think about that for a moment. The former political editor of The Sun and the former spin doctor for Tony Blair work for the Russians. Truth indeed that irony is alive and kicking in politics.

The IP address 83.244.252.242 appears as the source of edits to a number of Wikipedia articles. These include the Wikipedia pages for:

BTA Bank, Mukhtar Ablyazov, Timur Kulibayev, Mo Ibrahim, Mo Ibrahim Foundation, Ibrahim Index of African Governance, ITV News at Ten, Wife-beater, Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership.

In the case of BTA Bank, a registered client, there are specific edits to add information in regards to their seeking legal action for corruption against a Mukhtar Ablyazov.

The entry of Mukhtar Ablyazov is of note. He once was the head of the BTA Bank. It appears he was the subject of court proceedings in the UK. Someone using the above IP address removed references to alleged links to the Government of Kazakhstan being politically motivated in their pursuit of Ablyazov which was referenced through the UNHCR to Amnesty International.

They also removed a section that noted the impact Mr Ablyazov’s request for asylum in the UK was having on UK-Kazakhstan relations that was referenced to the Daily Telegraph newspaper – which is considered as a appropriate source for referencing by Wikipedia.

There is also an edit that adds that the Russian Interior Ministry has requested a warrant for Ablyazov’s arrest. Not to mention some other interesting edits along the way.

In fairness to Tim Allan, we only know about his distasteful clients because unlike Bell Pottinger, he has done the right thing and signed his company up to the lobbyist’s trade body, which obliges members to list their clients. Yet his commitment to transparency appears to end there. It certainly doesn’t appear to extend to Wikipedia.

Allan’s company have a lot of clients who are not foreign governments – Google for example. Strange bedfellows. The global company who believe in transparency in the same client-list as the Government of Russia. I wonder if the people at Google know what company Tim Allan keeps?

UPDATE: Francis Ingham has been in touch. He runs the PRCA, a different but similar trade body to the APPC. He points out that Bell Pottinger are members of this body and they do register their clients with them. I wasn’t aware of this at time of writing and am happy to put the matter right here. The best way to do this is to publish Francis’s email message. He’s given me permission to reproduce it in full:

“BPPA joined us in March 2010. Entries are retrospective so first entry probably after election. Not sure as I’m at home right now. Like APPC members, all PRCA ones register all PA clients, directors and PA staff every three months. Some agencies join us; some APPC; some both. But our requirements and codes are very similar. Main difference is we have in house teams as members too, and they are required to register PA work too. Last month, we left UK public affairs council due its failures, and called for statutory register held by independent (non industry) body. We hope govt now moves quickly on this.”

UPDATE 2, 3rd January: The list of clients was playing on my mind last night. Then it hit me. “Falcon and Associates”. Never heard of them. Nearly every other company on the list – Virgin Media, Tesco, National Grid, MacDonalds, Coca Cola, Cable and Wireless – they’re not just big companies they’re household names. The only other Falcons I know are a chain of kebab shops in Hull. So who are Falcon and Associates? Turning to Portland’s other client, Google, I found an article that begins: “His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, has issued, in his capacity as the Ruler of Dubai, a law establishing Falcon and Associates.”

So basically, Falcon and Associates is the company established by the Government of Dubai to represent the interests of Dubai. Tim Allan’s Portland communications is working for the Government of Dubai through Falcon and Associates. You wouldn’t have known this unless you’d spent a considerable amount of time digging around. Just as well I did.

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