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South African journalists launch UK defamation action over Bell Pottinger 'White Monopoly Capital' campaign

South African journalists take legal action in England against insurers for defunct media company Bell Pottinger over 'White Monopoly Capital' media campaign

Posted on 21 May 2018

Three eminent South African journalists have formally lodged a claim with AIG Europe, the insurer for now defunct Bell Pottinger, over the UK media relations giant’s role in the so-called ‘White Monopoly Capital’ media campaign, to manipulate public opinion using social media, which was found to be racially divisive.

London based lawyers Leigh Day on behalf of Ferial Haffajee, Peter Bruce and Adriaan Basson are seeking damages in England for defamation and breach of privacy resulting from Bell Pottinger’s role in the WMC media campaign.

The claim is being pursued in England as Bell Pottinger was based there.

From January 2016, Oakbay Investments, a South African company owned by the Gupta family, wealthy Indian businessmen who moved to South Africa in 1993, engaged Bell Pottinger to manage the Gupta’s reputation and corporate communications.

Bell Pottinger created a media strategy designed to avoid or reduce criticism of the Guptas and their ties to former President Jacob Zuma. This involved creating a narrative around the existence of 'economic apartheid’. The expression referred to the exclusion of a large section of the population in the formal economy for the benefit of a handful of rich white businessmen who allegedly controlled the South African media, which in turn was critical of the Guptas.

Following increased pressure in the media and allegations that Bell Pottinger was inciting racial tension, and operating fake Twitter accounts to mount racially driven campaigns, UK law firm Herbert Smith, was commissioned by Bell Pottinger’s CEO, James Henderson, to investigate the claims.

In July 2017, in a report that allegedly cost £1 million, Herbert Smith concluded that certain material created for the campaign by Bell Pottinger “was negative or targeted towards wealthy white South African individuals or corporates and/or was potentially racially divisive and/or potentially offensive and was created in breach of relevant ethical principles”.

Bell Pottinger’s clients deserted them and the company went into administration on 12 September 2017. Ferial Haffajee, Editor-at-Large for the Huffington Post South Africa, Peter Bruce, Senior Columnist at Business Day and the Financial Mail, and Adriaan Basson, Editor-in-Chief at News24 were all targeted by the WMC campaign in a barrage of tweets published by twitter ‘bots’.

The three journalists had published investigative reports that were critical of the Guptas and their allegedly corrupt relationship with President Zuma. The focus of the criticism was so-called “state capture” by which it was alleged that Guptas had misused their political connections to gain control of state assets at the expense of the tax payer and even influence the appointment of ministers.

The journalists allege that the tweets were highly offensive and falsely portrayed them as biased and lacking in integrity, and purveyors of fake news who were paid by their white bosses to criticise the Guptas. The tweets also included the unauthorised and offensive use of their faces super-imposed onto images, such as Ms. Haffajee’s face being used on a series of images of women in sexualised positions.

They allege that Bell Pottinger was either responsible for some or all of the various tweets concerning them and/or was knowingly involved in the process of their publication.

Richard Meeran, Head of Leigh Day’s International Department and lawyer for the claimants, stated: “This case highlights the increasingly worrying menace of social media backed by sophisticated technology being used to manipulate public opinion with fake information.

"The attempt to stifle reputable journalists investigating serious issues of corruption is extremely concerning and needs to be properly investigated and subject to the judicial process. Our clients aim to establish precisely what transpired and who was involved in the WMC campaign against them, and hold them to account legally.”