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How PR people screwed Mandela

The last time I appeared in PR Week’s Power Book was 2008, the year I joined the Daily Telegraph as a columnist and leader writer. Apparently it made me one of “the most influential people in PR” (the Power Book, not the Daily Telegraph).

My entry was next to that of my co-conspirator at Jericho Chambers, Robert Phillips. While most entries slavishly sucked up to the fading influence of the UK media, I see that under “most respected journalist” he cited the British-Chinese writer Xue Xinran and I announced a tie between the murdered reporters from Uzbekistan and Russia, Alisher Saipov and Anna Politkovskaya. Clearly, it had separately occurred to Robert and me that greater respect was due to journalists who put their lives, rather than lunch, on the line.

But it was when it came to “most respected politican” that we really separated from the pack. Robert chose Tony Blair and I would take issue with him on that, obviously. I went for Bilawal Bhutto Zadari, who had just inherited the mantle of the Pakistan Peoples Party from his assassinated mother Benazir Bhutto.

Meanwhile, the overwhelmingly most nominated politician by PR’s great and good was Nelson Mandela. And our PR industry has ever since clung to the coat-tails of clients and media as they’ve wrung their hands and shed crocodile tears for the great man, no more so than during the solemnities for him this past week.

Partly this is to do with PR being led by the nose by UK media five years on, just as it was in 2008. There has been nothing like a rounded, objective obituary, or even portrait, of Mandela in the British media (honourable exception: The Economist). It has all been breathless and unrelieved hagiography, not least because any mention of the ANC’s armed struggle, which Mandela supported throughout his time in prison and which claimed innocent civilian lives, would have required Britain’s predominantly Tory press having to record that Margaret Thatcher called him a terrorist.

Understand that this is not a call to diss Mandela, whose subsequent extraordinary contribution to peace and reconciliation in South Africa speaks for itself. But it is a call for a full picture of the man and for the whole story, which British media have consistently refused to supply recently.

And I do want to shine the light of truth (if not reconciliation) on the role of British industry’s PR groupies in this gross hypocrisy. As Seumus Milne (another honourable exception) writes in today’s Guardian, apartheid wasn’t some weird aberration that came out of the blue, unconnected with neo-
colonialism and the western financiers who bankroll it. We, in the west, have backed dictatorships against their peoples all over the world – ask the citizens of Argentina, Saudi Arabia or even Iraq – and South Africa was no exception.

That was why Mandela was a progressive nationalist and that is why Mandela was only tamed, in western capitalist eyes, when the ANC fell into line with our corporatism and the cold hand of global finance, which has actually severely restricted the causes of development and equality in Africa.

And who has served that process faithfully throughout? Step forward the British and American PR industry. Anyone remember who did the PR for sanctions-busting Barclays in South Africa? Yup, that’s right. Anyone remember the boom in financial services in the City of London in the Eighties and Nineties? That was the source of PR’s fastest growth as our British PR’s finest acted as the fig-
leaf over liberalised financial services, the shop window of neo-colonial capitalism, as they re-wrote the ANC’s history and turned Mandela into Africa’s cuddly old uncle.

Let’s remember that when moist-eyed financial PR people start citing Mandela as their favourite politician. Sure, they respect him. He was one international figure who helped to make them a great deal of money. And he may have been a great liberator, but global finance is not.

If western PR continues simply to be an industry of apologists for that system, then it is part of Africa’s problem rather than its solution. And if financial PR people continue to consider themselves members of the Mandela Fan Club, then they won’t just be witnessing the passing of a great man – they’ll be witnessing the passing of the sickbag.

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George Pitcher

George Pitcher

George Pitcher is a writer and talker, an academic specialising in the purposes of journalism and an Anglican priest. You can read his LSE blog here.

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