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by Adebayo Adegbite

Influence employs the Bell Pottinger scandal as a conduit to discuss the role of Public relations, Advertisement and Influencer Marketing in war. It chronicles the rise and fall of one of the biggest Public Relations Firms in the UK-Bell Pottinger-founded by Lord Tim Bell in 1987. The firm managed the image of Margaret Thatcher ,the Conservative Prime Minister of the UK, who, with the help of Tim Bell, won the British elections three times in the 1980s.  At that moment, the firm was at the top of the world. But it wouldn’t last for long; a descent soon followed as it was expelled from the Professional Body of Public Relations Firms over its role in fomenting race riots in South Africa during former Republic of South African president Jacob Zuma’s tenure.

Apart from Jacob Zuma, the film also features prominent politicians and individuals like F.W. De Klerk, Nelson Mandela, Asma al-Assad, Margaret Thatcher and many others.

The noteworthy thing about the documentary is how it gently introduces us to the politicking that subsumes the undercurrent of war. Director Richard Poplack, using artful storytelling techniques, manages to combine general insights about subject matter of war with more nuanced discussions on the political, sociological and that ideological influence that nourishes it The documentary provides in-depth analysis into how politicians have employed PR and image management firms who, in turn, have used advertising and misinformation to sway opinion on issues from the days of radio to TV and social media.

Influence, BTS shoot

One thing to enjoy about the film is how it shows and not tell the description of its objective. Though the documentary has a narrator to take the viewers through the narration, he takes a backseat as the film focuses on the experts and the characters in the story, permitting the narrative to flow. The viewer is not just spoon-fed information, they are allowed to assimilate all the stories and POVs, and then left to make up their minds about the story. There is no doubt, for example, that Tim Bell was an outright maniacal in his actions over the course of the documentary but he is not caricatured into the archetypal villain; he is allowed to discuss his own side of the story alongside the victims and the experts. By the end of the documentary, one can say that the primary objective of nuanced storytelling has been achieved: the chronicling of an important story that need to be heard and not a homily about who is good or bad.

The documentary succeeds in offering balanced opinions without degenerating to scholarly exposition. It intersperses expert perspectives with interviews of the victims of Bell Pottinger scandal. I also like the optimistic note on which the documentary ends. Even though there is the tacit admission that the business of spin doctors and Public Relations merchants will still continue (as other similar firms with sinister aspirations like Bell Pottinger will take the space left behind by Tim Bell’s machinations), but the fact that that one firm specializing in insidious war mongering was made to pay for its sins provides relief.

Director Richard Poplack

War is evil; there shouldn’t be an attempt at neutrality, especially when the effects on the victims is spotlighted. This is one place the documentary struggles. For the kind of incidents involved in the Bell Pottinger scandal, especially in the South Africa riots in which the Bell Pottinger firm nearly plunged a whole nation into civil war, the documentary should have been bolder to take a stronger moral position. Pursuing objectivity is not a bad ideal in itself, but when pursuing fairness looks like you are shielding the main villain from harm and deserved inquisition, it can look like you are undermining the suffering of the victims.

It is not just enough to accept Lord Bell’s defense that “my actions are not immoral, they might be amoral”, one must realize that in the South Africa, as with the other places that Bell Pottinger has intervened in, brutal regimes have been empowered, lives have been lost, and political and social relationships have been ruined because of money and power. Therefore, merely interviewing the victims, especially the blacks who have had to deal with the fallout of the violence that Bell Pottinger has created, is the barest of minimums; it’s only right that a record of events like this should do more to stand with them.

Again, even though the film is balanced in its diversity of experts that selected for commentary and analysis, especially in terms of race and gender as I have noted before, there is too much of focus on journalists, social scientists and public relations practitioners, as opposed to the actual politicians who employ these strategists. The documentary wanders into speculation occasionally, rather than asserting credence, when it’s time to get intimate with the nature of war. It probably would have benefited more in terms of perspective if politicians were interviewed and more visceral insights on the politics of influence were examined. Thus, Influence sometimes feels like a bunch of social scientists offering theoretical and historical insights on the politics of public relations and influence, as opposed to the politicians and power brokers who are often in the eye of the storm , like the aforementioned Jacob Zuma and the Gupta family who employed Bell Pottinger to launder their image in the first place.

In all, Influence achieves its aim as an analysis of the subject of media and the insidious mongering of war to inform, educate, and provide noteworthy analysis on a worldwide phenomenon, while providing a practical example of it.

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