When rebrands go wrong

(And how to avoid the pitfalls)

Thatcher exposed in Tim Bell revelations

Brian Basham, a leading PR man, reviews Mark Hollingsworth's new biography on one of his most famous peers, Tory spin doctor Tim Bell. Brian Basham is chairman of Warwick Corporate

If I were Tim Bell I'd be furious. There I am, an adviser to Prime Ministers, Conservative politicians from the brightest to the rightest calling me every day; and honoured with a knighthood by a grateful nation, or at least a grateful Margaret Thatcher.

Then along comes this sleaze-bag author, Mark Hollingsworth, who reveals to the world that I have been a cokehead and a flasher. It's been buried for all these years; now, suddenly, here it is in the open - it simply shouldn't be allowed.

And, of course, as Bell's lawyers will have told him, if it were not deemed to be in the public interest, almost certainly, it would not be allowed.

The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act is designed specifically to stop people dragging up the past of convicted criminals who have paid their debt to society. But with the Act, the claim of justification is a defence and that, today is what shelters Mark Hollingsworth from Bell's wrath.

Hollingsworth could not have got away with this if Bell had just been well known. So, ironically, it is the service which secured him his knighthood, as an adviser to Thatcher, which gives Hollings-worth the protection.

The significance of Hollings-worth's revelations and the justification for revealing them, is not that Bell took a class A drug or that he exposed himself. That is not the point. The significance is that Thatcher was Prime Minister, she was told about it and she took no action.

For me, that is just one of those little pieces of information which is slowly letting daylight into a reappraisal of Thatcher's reign and her after-life.

It is, after all, quite an extraordinary thing. A Prime Minister is told of all this by one of her closest colleagues, Norman Tebbit. One would have thought she might have had a moral view about the revelation and might have decided to stand Bell aside for that reason alone. Alternatively, she might have taken the view, as Tebbit did, that Bell was a liability who could lose the Conservatives the 1987 election.

It seems that Thatcher took neither view and therein lies the mystery. Why not?

In her own memoirs, Thatcher has said that she decided she wanted to work with Bell because she respected him. That is undoubtedly so. But I don't believe that was the only reason. Above all, Thatcher was a pragmatist, a word she made into one of the dirtiest in the English language.

She would therefore have been unlikely to have made a moral judgment about Bell's youthful indiscretions. Of course, famously, she was also arrogant and believed herself untouchable. And with good reason. She had politically assassinated all opposition within her own party and had bought off the media with a liberal scattering of peerages and knighthoods.

So, I suspect that her confidence in her ability to control the media was uppermost in her mind when she decided to work with Bell; and Hollingsworth's book is, in part, further evidence that Thatcher, with her pragmatism and her manipulation of the media, introduced that seam of rottenness into British life, from which the maggots are still dropping.

Hollingsworth obviously finds Thatcher's dark side fascinating and I agree with him. What Thatcher was able to get away with tells us a lot about the inadequacies of our democracy. But Hollingsworth has nothing against Bell personally. Indeed, I suspect that he rather likes what he knows about him.

Contrary to the view expressed by Thatcher groupies, such as Sir Charles Powell, who have leapt to Tim's defence, Hollingsworth's book is neither a witch-hunt nor an out- and-out attack on Bell.

Indeed, Bell justifiably gets a great deal of credit for building up Saatchi & Saatchi alongside the brothers and the net impact on almost any potential client reading the book would be that this is a man they would like to have an association with.

That is a view I would endorse. Tim is expert at what he does and he also seems to be a very nice bloke.

But there are many compartments to the Pandora's Box of Thatcher's reign and so far, Hollings-worth and other members of the Thatcher research industry have only managed to half-open a couple of them.

It may be that some of the compartments will never be opened but the self-assurance, and perhaps self-righteousness, of Thatcher and her people has left a long trail of evidence to follow.

Thatcher was elected dictator of the country for too many years for us to forget her.

Now she's gone, read this book; read Hollingsworth's earlier book "Thatcher's Gold" and wait patiently for his next revelations.

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