Following a BBC investigation that alleged bribery at British American Tobacco (BAT), the FTSE 100 firm has turned to media boutique Harbottle & Lewis to ‘deal with the matter’.
An episode of Panorama aired on Monday night (30 November) alleged that the tobacco conglomerate had made illegal payments to politicians and civil servants in countries in East Africa, which the BBC claims came to light when a whistleblower shared hundreds of secret documents with the editorial team.
It is understood BAT spoke to several firms to potentially advise on the matter, including traditional preferred adviser Baker & McKenzie.
Despite a list of advisers that includes Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF), Hogan Lovells and King & Spalding, that BAT gave the instructions Harbottle & Lewis is not surprising. The firm’s well-established media team has previously won damages from The Sun on behalf of Russell Brand over allegations about his private life, and assisted Kevin Pietersen in securing an apology from the managing director of the England cricket team, Paul Downton, following a breach of a confidentiality agreement.
The BBC said its in-house legal team, headed by group general counsel Sarah Jones handled all legal issues relating to the Panorama episode without instructing external counsel. The broadcaster said it had no plans to instruct external counsel following BAT’s appointment of Harbottle & Lewis.
A BAT spokesperson said: ‘We are disappointed that the BBC has broadcast historic allegations from 2012 made by rogue former employees whose employment was terminated in acrimonious circumstances and who have a clear vendetta against us. We have instructed a specialist media lawyer to deal with this matter.’
‘Any company can fall victim to an employee acting inappropriately, but what is most important is how it responds. BAT, with over 57,000 employees, is no different and we are rightly proud that any alleged breach of our very high expectations of transparency and honesty is swiftly investigated. Any proven transgression results in disciplinary action and may lead to dismissal. We do not tolerate corruption in our business, no matter where it takes place.’
Earlier this year, BAT instructed HSF in its challenge to the UK government’s plans to bring in plain cigarette packaging, after parliament approved the Standardised Packaging of Tobacco Products Regulations 2015.
For more on British American Tobacco’s in-house legal team, subscribers can read: Client profile: Benoit Belhomme, British American Tobacco