A Canadian documentary, Influence, profiles the late Tim Bell, a state of the art political consultant, in the United Kingdom. His firm, Bell Pottinger, had a long history of advocacy for authoritarian clients from Syria’s Bashar Assad to South Africa’s Jacob Zuma. He was, in a phrase, a disinformation artist.
Like Frank FIgliuzzi, Kent Harrington, former CIA spokesman, is worried about the disruption and delegitimization of the 2020 election. In MediaVillage, he writes that Bell’ story, as recounted in Influence, is a cautionary tale for American voters who don’t think they need to pay attention to other countries.
Thanks to two South African journalists and filmmakers, Influence has arrived in time to give Americans a chance to think again. The documentary is all about how advertising metastasized into political consulting to transform politics. The work of Richard Poplak and Diana Neille, the 2020 Sundance Film Festival selection just aired on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. It deserves a wide audience south of the border before Americans go to the polls this year.
Influence uses the biography of the late Lord Tim Bell (pictured at top and below), an ad man-turned-political-consultant ennobled for helping Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher win three elections, as its connective tissue. Bell’s story is more than the tale of the rise and fall of a hustler whose firm, Bell Pottinger, collapsed in 2017 after an exposé of its racist campaign supporting South African president Jacob Zuma and his corrupt backers. It’s an allegory about how money married to power can master politics anywhere, including in constitutional democracies.
Harrington notes that the Trump re-election campaign is using all the tactics that Bell used in South Africa to drum up a racially divisive, factually flawed campaign to save Zuma, the embattled incumbent.
“With billions of dollars coursing through the US presidential election, a political consulting industry is putting the same tools and tactics on offer, not to mention once sold, on the Web, on air, and on screen, every day.
“Their infectiousness in an already divided body politic and society is obvious. So are the ends of the people who peddle them—their bottom line—as well as the goals of their client. The question is: how much damage will they do?”