History Slam Episode 147: Influence

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By Sean Graham

Influence debuts tonight on CBC and GEM at 8 pm (8:30 NT) and 9 ET/PT on documentary

Whenever I teach a course about popular culture, the final class always includes a discussion about the importance of being critical consumers of content. We are bombarded with information on a daily basis, whether advertising, news, or entertainment and I find it useful to constantly remind myself that all this stuff is created for a reason – the person/people behind it have some sort of goal (if even subconscious) for putting it into the world. It’s up to us to wade through those motivations as we navigate a media landscape that is growing more crowded each day.

Sometimes it’s pretty easy to figure out. An advertiser wants you to buy a product. A political party wants your support. A sitcom wants you to laugh so you’ll keep watching and they can sell ad time. Other times, though, the messaging isn’t as apparent. As marketing firms and PR professionals continue to innovate, they are using increasingly sophisticated techniques to convey messages.

With this, there has been an increase in the weaponization of information and misinformation. From sowing division, creating fear, and fostering distrust, the political landscape in which some people work has fundamentally changed.

This is the subject of the new documentary Influence. The film profiles the life and career of Sir Tim Bell, who rose to prominence in advertising before shifting his attention to politics. Following his success with the election campaign of Margaret Thatcher, Bell, and his now infamous Bell Pottinger firm, turned his attention to international affairs, with part of its portfolio creating influential campaigns in support of dictatorial regimes.

Despite its massive influence, the firm eventually collapsed following the revelations of its misdeeds by South African journalists, but its story and legacy are a powerful example of how susceptible societies are to misinformation. Featuring interviews with Tim Bell and many of his contemporaries, the film demonstrates the extent to which some people will openly spread misinformation for their own political and financial gains. The film is gripping without being prescriptive and serves as a welcome warning in an age where critical consumption is part of being an engaged citizen.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with the film’s writers and directors Diana Nielle and Richard Poplak. We talk about the film’s origins, the extent of Bell Pottinger’s international operations, and how things came to a head in South Africa. We also discuss why the principals agreed to be interviewed, their motivations, and what audiences can take away from the documentary.

Sean Graham is a historian at Parks Canada, an Adjunct Professor at Carleton University, and a contributing editor at Active History.

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