In a previous era, night wagons would trundle through the back alleys of the world.
Their task was to empty, as tidily and discretely as possible, the slop buckets containing the city’s accumulated urine and excrement. Eventually, there came the introduction of waterborne sewage and the slop bucket emptiers had to find new work.
That’s when the modern public relations industry came into being. That, metaphorically speaking, is what public relations practitioners do.
They empty the slop buckets of capitalism, as tidily and discretely as possible. And mostly they are very good at it.
With glitz and glamour, they dazzle and blind a media that, increasingly, lacks the resources and energy to examine critically the glossy tales they spin on behalf of their clients.
With adroit sleight of hand, they promote the celebrities, rather than issues, that obsess the collective public mind.
But just occasionally, even the best of them stumbles and kicks over a slop bucket, irretrievably soiling their elegant footwear with foul-smelling ordure.
That’s what happened to Bell Pottinger, the British PR agency that, in what for it must seem an impossibly short timespan, has moved from being the world’s number one agency and straight on to the scrapheap.
The kiss of death was the campaign Bell Pottinger ran on behalf of Oakbay, owned by the Guptas, controversial cronies of President Jacob Zuma.
Mired in allegations of state capture – subverting national institutions to personal commercial benefit – they turned to Bell Pottinger.
In a country that remains a racial tinderbox, Bell Pottinger set out to deflect attention from the allegations against the Guptas by scapegoating the white community for all South Africa’s ills.
This was not Bell Pottinger’s walk on the dark side. Over the years, they had built a reputation for being willing to represent anyone who could afford their eye-watering fees.
What made their campaign for the Guptas different, a step beyond everyday sleaze, was not only that it was direct interference by a foreign company in the daily politics of another independent, friendly nation, but also that the South African campaign was perhaps the first time that all the negative aspects of our modern online lives – fake news, trolling, smears, harassment and abuse – were deliberately consolidated by a supposedly reputable firm to cause damage.
Fortunately, it backfired spectacularly. This week, the appeal committee of the British PR industry oversight body suspended Bell Pottinger’s accreditation for “at least” five years for actions that it found to be unethical and sowing racial discord.
The CEO of the firm has resigned, as have other executives. Its blue chip clients, belatedly fearing reputational contagion, are bailing out.
Lord Tim Bell, who founded Bell Pottinger almost 30 years ago but resigned last year after warning against the “smelly” activities undertaken for the Guptas, thinks the firm is unlikely to survive.
But while Bell Pottinger may sink, the major protagonists in this dirty saga will not suffer overly. The temporarily disgraced toffs, who ran the campaign and the firm, will be rehabilitated soon enough.
The British upper classes are endlessly tolerant of the peccadilloes of their own. One reason why Bell Pottinger was routed is that South Africans are not so easily taken in.
There are still questions to be asked, leads to be followed. There might be a few more slop buckets of steaming scandal that will be upended.