John Lennon’s best man is today in the unusual position of defending his work for Muammer Gaddafi.
“We were so hopeful that the world was changing,” says Peter Brown, president of Brown Lloyd James, a boutique public relations business based in Manhattan. “[Libya] had gone through enormous stages, giving up nuclear weapons. Now it’s an awful situation and we don’t know how bad it’s going to be.”
Mr Brown is a former personal assistant to the Beatles and attended the wedding of Mr Lennon and Yoko Ono. But according to papers filed last month with the US justice department, Brown Lloyd James was later hired to improve American public opinion about the ruling families of Libya and Syria.
In 2008, Brown Lloyd James began working for Hassan Tatanaki, a Libyan businessman with close ties to the Gaddafi family. Though Mr Tatanaki paid the bills, much of Brown Lloyd James’ work was for Seif al-Islam, Colonel Gaddafi’s son.
Both the dictator and his son are now being hunted by Libyan rebels following the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime.
But in 2008, Brown Lloyd James arranged for Mr Islam to visit the US for the first time and meet George H. W. Bush, the former president, and leaders from the Jewish community.
The work with Mr Islam led to Brown Lloyd James taking on the Libyan Mission to the UN as a client. In September 2009 Mr Brown and his team provided logistical support for Col Gaddafi’s visit to the UN, where he delivered a rambling and controversial speech.
“We did not advise on the content or delivery of these speeches,” Brown Lloyd James said in the filings.
The company was paid $2m in fees and expenses by Mr Tatanaki and the Libyan Mission to the UN for its work, and for a time had an office in Tripoli.
Capitalising on its reputation in the region, Brown Lloyd James last year worked with the Syrian government to co-ordinate a profile about Asma al-Assad, first lady, that appeared in Vogue magazine.
The article was published in February, just as Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, began a brutal crackdown on protesters. “We had huge hopes for that country, which are now all dashed,” Mr Brown said.
Revelations of Brown Lloyd James’ work have led to an online backlash against the company. “That money should have gone to Syrian farmers who have no water to grow their crops instead of hiring some PR company to improve the image of the Butcher Family of Syria,” said one respondent on The Hill website.
Mr Brown defends his work with the Libyan and Syrian regimes by saying that at the time, his company’s work was in line with US policy. “We like to be on the right side of history, and we think that ultimately we will be,” he said.
Until the Arab uprisings, the US had been working to repair diplomatic relations with both countries.
Mike Holtzman, Mr Brown’s business partner, acknowledged that taking on such clients had inherent risks. “What we do isn’t all sweetness and light. There is always a risk in those countries that you will have mud in your face and arrows in your back.”
Mr Brown said it was his work with the Beatles that prepared him for his work with Brown Lloyd James. “We made music international,” Mr Brown said. “Recognising and respecting other cultures is important, and it’s what we do.”
As for future clients, Mr Brown is not shying away from controversy. “I would love to take on Iran as a client,” he said. “There are areas of commonality that ought to be exploited.”