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Tim Bell, 77, Dies; Brazen P.R. Man for Thatcher and Other Leaders

Tim Bell, an irrepressible pioneer in the field of political public relations who helped Margaret Thatcher and Britain’s Conservative Party win three elections, then advised an assortment of corporations, alleged criminals and dictators including Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, died on Sunday at his home in London. He was 77.

His death was confirmed by his former business partner, Piers Pottinger, in a statement. The statement said he died after a long illness, although no specific cause was given. Associates said Mr. Bell had a stroke in 2016 and had been in poor health for several years.

Charming, often ruthless and blessed with leading-man looks, Mr. Bell took a roguish delight in shading the truth on behalf of clients and causes. He was a right-leaning establishment figure to the core, and he was awarded a knighthood in 1991 and a peerage in 1998, but he fought and strategized like an outsider only intermittently concerned with rules.

“Morality is a job for priests, not P.R. men,” he told The New York Times in an interview last year. “Morality is in the eye of the beholder.”

Mr. Bell came to prominence courtesy of a three-word slogan, “Labour isn’t working.” It had been conceived by a colleague at Saatchi & Saatchi, the advertising firm founded by the brothers Charles and Maurice Saatchi, where he worked at the time. After the firm won the Conservative Party account, in advance of the 1979 general election, Mr. Bell became the company’s conduit to Mrs. Thatcher.

Like every good account man — think Roger Sterling on “Mad Men” — he brought along a courtier’s patience and thick skin. Mrs. Thatcher initially hated “Labour isn’t working,” Mr. Bell often said, because it mentioned her opponent’s party, and at first she didn’t notice the double entendre. In his telling, he had to hold his ground through several of her tirades, which included attacks on his intelligence.

ImageCreditPress Association, via Associated Press

“There were many conversations in which she shouted at me and told me I was an idiot,” he said in the 2018 interview. The slogan enjoyed a much-celebrated afterlife, although whether it made a genuine difference in the election against the then-teetering Labour Party is far from clear.

Banking on his reputation as Mrs. Thatcher’s spin doctor, Mr. Bell left Saatchi & Saatchi in 1985 to co-found his own P.R. firm, which evolved into Bell Pottinger. Though never the largest or most profitable company of its kind, Bell Pottinger was usually part of any story about how London became the reputation-laundering capital of the world.

The company would eventually count among its clients Alexander Lukashenko, the dictator of Belarus; the Sultan of Brunei; repressive regimes in Bahrain and Egypt; and Oscar Pistorius, the Olympic sprinter, just after he had been accused of murdering his girlfriend.

When asked by Financial Times if he had ever declined to represent anyone, he named Robert Mugabe, the former prime minister of Zimbabwe; the Labour Party; and six Russians who had been slapped with sanctions by the European Union.

“I don’t think I’ve handled any dubious characters,” he told the BBC in 2017. “I could defend them all.”

For General Pinochet, who ruled Chile for decades, Bell Pottinger coined the phrase “Reconciliation, not retribution” and played up his poor health after he was placed under house arrest in London on an extradition warrant for human rights violations issued by Spain.

After a legal battle that ended in 1990, General Pinochet was released on the grounds that he was medically unfit for trial. Bell Pottinger’s fees were paid by the Pinochet Foundation.

A swaggering figure who wore Armani suits and drove a red Ferrari, Mr. Bell sought out and relished attention. “I enjoy being stared at,” The Telegraph once quoted him as saying. He was such an avid smoker of Dunhill cigarettes — 80 a day, friends say — that he had a bed installed in his office so he could circumvent national health rules and claim the space as his home.

“For all his many flaws, he was a titan of the P.R. industry,” said Francis Ingham, director general of the Public Relations and Communications Association, a trade group. “He courted controversy and controversial clients, and although there are many who disapproved of some of his clients, I think everyone would acknowledge his enormous talents.”

Bell Pottinger would eventually implode in the most ironic fashion imaginable — a P.R. scandal. In early 2016, the company agreed to work for the Guptas, three Indian brothers who were closely linked to Jacob Zuma, the former president of South Africa. As allegations surfaced that the Guptas were reaping fortunes from a variety of state enterprises, they retained Bell Pottinger to create what looked like a grass-roots populist campaign of rage against wealthy white people.

[Read about how Tim Bell’s firm met its end in South Africa.]

The point was to distract attention from the Guptas. The result was that racial tensions soared.

An investigation by the Public Relations and Communications Association ended with Bell Pottinger ejected from the organization.

“The work was on a completely new scale of awfulness,” Mr. Ingham said in a 2018 interview with The Times.

Clients bolted, and the company dissolved into bankruptcy.

Mr. Bell had left the company over the Gupta account roughly a year before this catastrophe. His objections, he said in the interview with The Times, were strictly commercial. Bell Pottinger had wealthy white clients in South Africa, he explained, so taking money to savage them was bad business.

After leaving Bell Pottinger, Mr. Bell set up a new P.R. company, Sans Frontières Associates, though he was often sidelined by health problems.

Timothy John Leigh Bell was born on Oct. 18, 1941, in a suburb of Northern London. He was the son of Arthur Bell, a salesman for a food production company who hailed from Belfast. When his son was 5 years old, Arthur Bell left his Australian-born wife, Greta Findlay, for South Africa. She then married the lawyer who handled her divorce, Peter Pettit.

Mr. Bell preferred modern jazz to school and briefly considered a career playing the trumpet or piano, he wrote in his autobiography, “Right or Wrong: The Memoirs of Tim Bell” (2015).

Instead, at age 18 he landed a bottom-rung job at the Associated British Corporation, a television company. He wound up at an advertising agency through a fellow player he met during a rugby game.

He joined that agency, Saatchi & Saatchi, soon after it was established. Forever uncertain about how he had secured the job, he theorized in his memoirs that it might have been because the Saatchis, who are Jewish, “were afraid of anti-Semitism from clients, so wanted a very English frontman.”

Mr. Bell married three times, first in his 20s, to Suzanne Cordran. In 1988 he married Virginia Wallis Hornbrook, with whom he had two children, Alicia Wallis Bell and Harry Leigh Bell. They divorced in 2016, and in 2017 he married Jackie Phillips.

His survivors include his wife and two children.


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