Who called Lord Bell?

Can it really be true that the mysterious caller who twice interrupted Lord Bell’s now infamous interview on Newsnight was none other than Johann Rupert, chairman of luxury goods company Richemont and the former South African client who alleged he was under attack from the agency’s work for the controversial Gupta brothers?

If so, and some very well placed sources say it was, it suggests that Lord Bell is still in touch with South African-based Rupert, who was one of the first clients to cancel his contract with Bell Pottinger as a result of the Gupta association. Richemont’s connection with Bell Pottinger had lasted, Rupert estimated, between 15 and 18 years. 

At last November’s annual meeting for Remgro, the investment company he also chairs, Rupert announced that he had been under attack on social media by fringe political commentators, who alleged that the company had ‘control’ of certain key segments of the media.

He said: ‘Whilst they were still in the employment of Richemont they started working for the Guptas. The very same person…. Their total task was to deflect attention [from state capture allegations involving the Guptas]. Guess who they took as a target? A client of theirs… Me!’ Rupert also claimed that Bell Pottinger had coined the phrase ‘white monopoly capital’, an allegation denied by the agency and also found to be untrue by law firm Herbert Smith Freehills. However, Bell Pottinger did use the phrase.

Huffington Post South Africa claims Rupert’s intervention came two weeks after he received a text message stating that Bell Pottinger was ‘100 per cent behind the attacks on you’.

The statement by Rupert, a man described as media shy, apparently shocked Bell Pottinger’s financial team working on the account, who were adamant that they had no interest in attacking him personally. Their efforts to appease him proved fruitful. However, the cache of emails released as part of the #GuptaLeaks suggest that Rupert featured in their work from early on.

On 6 February 2016, an email from Bell Pottinger’s former partner Victoria Geoghegan supplied ‘suggested content’ to be used by Collen Maine, president of ANC Youth League, at a national rally in Pretoria. It was sent to colleagues at Bell Pottinger and associates of the Gupta family, including Oakbay’s chief executive Nazeem Howa.

The points highlighted that ‘economic control has remained in the hands of a minority of privileged and powerful institutions and families’ and that ‘the two richest people in South African own the same wealth as the poorest 50 per cent of the population’. Rupert is widely regarded as South Africa’s second richest individual. She continued: ‘It is clear that the system needs to be ended once and for all and for inequality to be properly addressed... the privilege of the few needs to be replaced with opportunity for all.'

While her points echoed the findings of a global inequality report, released by Oxfam two years’ earlier, they undoubtedly prompted the start of a new political narrative. The following day, Nick Lambert, another Bell Pottinger partner, highlighted key moments from Maine's speech as ‘early remarks: white monopoly capital continues its stranglehold on economy. White monopoly capital decides what is printed in the media’.

Thus, it appears that seven months before Rupert’s infamous speech, the seeds of the campaign he alleged targeted him were sown. And the words ‘white monopoly capital’ had already been uttered in an internal email within Bell Pottinger.