Experiencing What Our Clients Experience

When Chelgate Itself Was Under Attack by the Misinformation Merchants

Over the years, many of our clients have been the targets of misinformation, fake facts and social media storms based around carefully planted false narratives. This is the new world of opinion battlegrounds – something we discuss in our new “Opinion Battlegrounds” podcast.

But it was quite a new experience for Chelgate itself to be targeted this way. This happened shortly before Christmas.

The story, in short, was that a prominent online newspaper ran a story about Chelgate that was then picked up, promoted, republished, embroidered and commented upon across social media. The essence of the story was that Chelgate had commissioned an intelligence consultancy called Sandstone to prepare a report filled with outlandish and inaccurate claims which we then used to spread false facts to the media on behalf of one of our government clients.

The story, in fact, was entirely false; in fact, so false that it is already the subject of both civil and criminal libel proceedings out of Luxembourg, where Sandstone is based.

The reality was that Chelgate had never commissioned any such report from Sandstone or anyone else and had never received any such report.

It does appear that the report referred to in the libel does actually exist, but it was not prepared by Sandstone, was not commissioned by Chelgate, was never seen by Chelgate and was never in any way used by Chelgate. In fact, nobody at Chelgate was aware of its existence until the publication of the libel. It appears to have been simply a research document submitted to Sandstone by a third party, and rejected by Sandstone who never passed it on to any third party.

So, this raises the question of how and why the report found its way to this publication, and why Chelgate was targeted this way. A question that would have been interesting if it had not been quite so sinister.

Of course we’ve been in touch with Sandstone who have been doing their own investigations, and they tell us they now know who arranged the report’s publication and why. The list of suspects was actually pretty short. Sandstone say that they will be passing that information to the Public Prosecutor. From what we have been able to gather, this was disinformation, deliberately planted as part of a rather messy propaganda scrap between at least three international interests. Chelgate, it appears, was caught up in the crossfire.

But, whatever the motives, and whoever the players, the suggestion that this report was commissioned by Chelgate and was then used to spread fake facts to the media was simply false, defamatory and potentially quite damaging. So, what to do about it? In the past, I have tended to advise clients against a messy social media war, on the basis that if you wrestle with a pig, you both get filthy, but only the pig enjoys itself. In this case, we are fortunate that there is clear and demonstrable evidence of libel, so the legal option is available to us. Sadly, that’s not always the case for our clients. We can also thank the Blessed Lord McAlpine for demonstrating so well that Twitter is not such a safe jungle for the libel trolls to prowl. Defamation’s still defamation, wherever you are hiding. And as Lord McAlpine demonstrated so ably, it’s not just the originator of the libel who’s at risk. Anyone who re-publishes it, promotes it or even – as in the case of Sally Bercow – makes an inappropriate “nudge nudge” reference may find themselves equally at risk. It’s an area where lawyers and PR professionals can work very effectively together.

Not a pleasant experience in the Season of Goodwill to All Men! But in fact, not without its value, as being the target of misinformation ourselves does perhaps help us understand still better what our clients go through when they are under false and hurtful propaganda attack. But after that rather noxious end to the old year, here’s wishing all of our readers and all of our friends a wonderful, happy and successful New Year, and, indeed, New Decade.

By Terence Fane-Saunders, Executive Chairman