A sad love letter to the Iron Lady

While Mrs Thatcher's PR supremo can't quite shake off his old dissembling habits, a mixture of hero worship, scorn and vulnerability makes for an enjoyable read, says Robert Phillips

by Robert Phillips
Last Updated: 23 Feb 2015

This could have been a great media memoir – stripping bare the advertising and PR world, as Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential did with restaurants and chefs. But there is little sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Instead, Tim Bell offers us a sad love story.

Editors Hopper and Vallance treat the man gently and respectfully. It is a calm, enjoyable read, meandering through the bigger political characters and frontline events of the day (the miners' strike, the Falklands, the Brighton bomb, Wapping, several elections and the end of apartheid). Tim Bell was a front-row observer, though never with the intimate, crafting genius that Alastair Campbell enjoyed with Tony Blair. Right or Wrong is no Campbell diary; there is wistfulness about Bell, a frustrated politician, who maybe wishes it was.

'This is not a confessional,' Bell muses. 'I don't want to dredge up some of the more unacceptable things I was doing.' He leaves the reader wondering about the gaps – people and stories - and whether they have been omitted for personal, legal or therapeutic reasons. Having survived cancer, this book is often Bell's catharsis.

Bell is a complex, vulnerable character, beset by demons. 'I am a hero worshipper. I work for my demigods.' This lack of self-confidence is maybe the product of living for too long in the shadows of the Saatchi brothers, who never gave him the recognition he obviously craved. A cod psychologist might trace this thirst – first from Maurice and Charles, and then from Maggie – to his alcoholic father abandoning him. He does not hold back on the Saatchis: 'detached', 'scheming', 'without scruples', 'brutal' and 'simple' pepper the pages.

And then there is Margaret. 'I have to start this story with Margaret because she changed me completely. I loved her.' The tearful scenes at her resignation hour are uncomfortable. He identifies with her – both are outsiders. Politically, they were inseparable, we sense Thatcher's shadow when Bell spits out what he thinks about the BBC ('a left-wing organisation with in-built bias') or Diana, Princess of Wales: 'a banal air-head' whom he loathed with venom.

Bell portrays his great love with huge sensitivity. He offers a human side to the Iron Lady that we rarely get (or perhaps never want) to see. It was Margaret who spent the night crying over the deaths of 321 Argentinian sailors on the Belgrano; Margaret who refused to let the Tories run a negative campaign against Michael Foot ('as a pensioner, he'd be better off with the Conservatives'). Bell even manages a touch of Are You Being Served? when asked to explain to the humourless prime minister the double-entendre implications of the word pussy. It is one of the book's few laugh-out-loud moments.

'I am a moral man,' Bell claims. But he quickly admits to lying, especially in helping the Conservatives' pursuit of power. 'Bad' research was used to justify running the campaign that the agency wanted to and, at times, this reads as though the agency's headlines in Campaign were more important than the democratic governance of the UK.

'Charles (Saatchi's) great line was "why tell the truth when a good lie will do?" and there was many a time when I would adopt the same philosophy,' Bell says, leaving a sense that this ambivalence towards the truth, backed by a messianic belief in his own rectitude, translates into Bell's business life beyond politics. Bell is rewriting history, but this fundamental lack of honesty speaks directly to the abuses for which the PR industry itself is now rightly being taken to task.

Bell's moral ambivalence is a recurring theme. In a memoir for an industry legend, there is oddly no love or warmth for his craft. Bell ignores the dying skills of PR with a metaphorical waft of an arrogant hand. He seems to care little for the 'how' or the 'why' of PR. He simply did it, and does it, because he is good at it and because, by his own admission, 'it makes (him) lots of money'.

'I try, with mixed success, not to give a fuck about what people think about me.' The man protests too much. He is still searching for approbation. Only Maggie ('a colossus') really understood him. 'She was quite lonely and had few friends,' he writes. Despite her low levels of emotional intelligence, Mrs Thatcher sensed a vulnerability in Bell to which she warmed, almost maternally. It was a curious relationship, for sure, just as this is a curious, and often rather sad, book.

Robert Phillips is the co-founder of Jericho Chambers and a former EMEA CEO of Edelman. He is a visiting professor in public relations at Cass Business School, London. His latest book, Trust Me, PR Is Dead, is due for publication later this year

Right or Wrong: The memoirs of Lord Bell, edited by David Hopper and Charles Vallance. Published by Bloomsbury, £17

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