Herbert Smith Freehills finds evidence of wrongdoing at Bell Pottinger Article icon


Bell Pottinger created material for its work on behalf of Oakbay Capital, the investment arm of the South African-based Gupta family, that was ‘negative or targeted’ towards wealthy white South African individuals or corporates, was ‘potentially racially divisive and/or potentially offensive’ and was in breach of ‘relevant ethical principles’, a report by Herbert Smith Freehils has found.

Publication of the report follows the resignation of chief executive James Henderson at the weekend. He said that, having read the findings, 'I recognise that the business requires a change of leadership to fix the problems of the past and to move forward'.

However, the report, which was commissioned by Bell Pottinger chairman Mark Smith, clears Bell Pottinger of the allegation that it used or instructed others to use Twitterbots in the promotion of its economic emancipation campaign.  The agency did create a blog and associated Twitter account as part of its campaign, but neither garnered a large following.

Much of the criticism within South Africa has focused on the country’s first fake news propaganda campaign that generated at least 220,000 tweets and hundreds of Facebook posts in the year to July, according to the country’s Times newspaper, attacking politicians and opponents of the government.

The law firm said that it had also ‘seen evidence that the BP account team used other tactics in relation to the economic emancipation campaign which arguably breached relevant ethical principles, including taking steps which might mislead or undermine journalists who were asking questions’.  

Lawyers from Herbert Smith considered more than 45,000 documents and interviewed witnesses, including a number of members of the Oakbay account team, although one who attended a preliminary interview declined to attend any further interrogations.

The report also makes clear that, while it was not a breach of ethical principles to accept the mandate for an economic emancipation campaign, Bell Pottinger’s senior management should have recognised that it would be sensitive and potentially controversial and, as a result, more closely scrutinise the work.

It finds no evidence that senior management knew about the detail of the work, and has identified instances where they were provided information by the account team that was ‘inaccurate or misleading’.