It's a PR disaster! Thatcher guru Lord Bell's car crash TV grilling (with two calls on his phone)

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Britain’s “first king of spin” Tim Bell admitted it was “curtains” for the firm he created during a car crash interview on Newsnight.

The ex-adviser to Margaret Thatcher’s phone went off twice while he was interrogated by the BBC’s Kirsty Wark about a racism scandal involving Bell Pottinger, which he co-founded in 1988.

During a rambling, six-minute appearance, Lord Bell was asked where the business had gone wrong. He quoted Sir Walter Scott, saying: “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive.”

After the first interruption from his mobile at the start of the interview, Lord Bell showed the screen to Ms Wark. When it went off a second time, later in the conversation, she said: “You’re a popular man tonight obviously.”

Number’s up: Tim Bell checks his phone during the interview with Kirsty Wark

Any hope he might be able to bring his “reputation management” skills to the rescue of the business he once headed evaporated in seconds last night. Asked by Ms Wark whether it was “curtains” for the firm he replied: “Almost certainly it is but it’s nothing to do with me.”

Bell Pottinger has been engulfed in a scandal over its work for South African company Oakbay Capital, which is owned by the billionaire Gupta family. 

Popular man: PR guru Tim Bell on Newsnight

Its chief executive, James Henderson, has resigned and it has been expelled from the PR industry’s trade body over the work, which led to accusations the company was stoking racial tensions. Lord Bell, 75, who resigned as chairman last August and suffered a stroke earlier this year, insisted he was not to blame for the furore. He said: “I think exactly the opposite is the situation.”

He added: “I had nothing to do with getting this account.” 

Today the head of the Public Relations and Communications Associations said he was proud to have expelled Bell Pottinger. Director-general Francis Ingham said: “It is the worst piece of PR work I’ve seen in 10 years at the PRCA.”

In July, Mr Henderson issued an “unequivocal” apology to anyone affected by the campaign. He resigned on Monday, saying he hoped the firm could “fix the problems of the past and move forward”. The Standard contacted Bell Pottinger for comment.

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