New film 'Influence' looks at the politicization of modern media

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Image: StoryScope Productions and Richard Poplak and Dianne Neille. Used with permission.

In recent years, people are more sensitized to the concept of "fake news" and asking about the truth of the media that they're consuming.  But it's far from a new problem. The public relations industry has shaped the truth of what we see, hear and read even before being established as a paid profession in the early to mid 1900s. 

Influence is a documentary that bills itself as "the rise and fall of the world's most dangerous public relations company." It explores the legacy of one of the most effective spin doctors of the 20th century, Lord Timothy Bell, a British public relations executive known for his willingness to represent anyone with money regardless of the truth of the message they wanted to promote.  

It documents the life and work of Bell, who was knighted by Margaret Thatcher in 1991.  He died in August of 2019 but his life's work lives on as the architect of a public relations methodology that is still practised today. 

Born into a modest working class family, Bell climbed his way to the heights of global power, first spinning Margaret Thatcher into the "Iron Lady" -- with his first election campaign being an attack on labour called "Labour Isn't Working."  His international contracts included working for the successors of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet; later branching out into France, Africa, Russia, the Middle East and elsewhere. 

In 1998, Bell co-founded the legendary PR firm Bell Pottinger, which quickly earned a reputation for representing even the most unsavoury characters, regardless of the circumstances. In tracking the particulars of Bell's extraordinary life, the film examines the politicization of modern communication over the last 40 years -- the winding journey from advertising to algorithms; television to Twitter.

The film examines how Bell and his associates shaped and co-opted the very institutions on which our governance systems are premised, quietly entrenching one of the most sophisticated -- and successful -- business ventures of recent times: the weaponization of democracy.

Directors Richard Poplak, Dianne Neille and Face2Face host David Peck talk about the film, fake news, lies and untruth, oppression and power, information overload, moral arcs and the politics of spectacle.

About the directors:

Richard Poplak is an award-winning author, journalist,and filmmaker. He has become one of the most widely read and controversial political journalists in South Africa, editing at large for Daily Maverick. Poplak has reported from over 30 developing countries for news outlets across the world, and he was part of a team that won the prestigious Global Shining Light Award for investigative journalism.

Diana Neille is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker from Johannesburg, South Africa.  A 2011 alumna of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, Neille has subsequently co-founded two media startups with the intention of fostering long-form investigative storytelling and documentary filmmaking at a time when journalism is facing unprecedented challenges globally.

Image: StoryScope Productions and Richard Poplak and Dianne Neille. Used with permission.

F2F Music: David Peck and Face2Face.

For more information about David Peck’s podcasting, writing and public speaking please visit his site here.

With thanks to Josh Snethlage and Mixed Media Sound.

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