Sam Bright reports on how two 20-something New Zealanders, allies of Lynton Crosby, were awarded a massive Government COVID-19 campaign contract

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A firm specialising in right-wing propaganda campaigns will be paid £3 million for helping to run the Government’s Coronavirus communications operation.

Documents published yesterday by the Government show that Topham Guerin Limited was awarded a massive, multi-million pound contract to deliver digital content on Coronavirus.

The company is run by Sean Topham and Ben Guerin – two New Zealanders who have a background in right-wing political campaigns. Indeed, the pair worked on Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s successful 2019 General Election campaign, proudly using “boomer memes” – graphics that are often poorly designed but appeal to middle-aged Facebook users – to help the right-wing Liberal Party to achieve a shock victory.

Following their success, the pair were picked up by Boris Johnson’s Conservatives to work on the party’s 2019 UK General Election campaign – again using amateurish content to provoke a conversation on social media.

According to a “No 10 source” the employment of the digital communications experts would be “Carole’s worst nightmare” – a reference to the award-winning Observer journalist who exposed the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the use of dark ads and campaign micro-targeting on social media platforms such as Facebook.

The Crosby Link

It is suspected that the pair came to the attention of the Conservatives through Linton Crosby – the notorious communications supremo who has been a long-time strategy advisor to Johnson and his party.

The Guardian reports that Topham and Guerin consulted for CTF Partners – a communications company run by Crosby. The Guardian claims that the pair helped Crosby run Facebook pages that “sidestepped Facebook’s rules on transparent political campaigning” on behalf of clients including major polluters, the Saudi Arabian Government, anti-cycling groups and various foreign political campaigns.

All parties have previously pointed out that they operated entirely within the law.

Following the Government’s muddled messaging at the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, it was revealed that Topham and Guerin had again been solicited to get the operation on track.

The Government documents reveal that their firm was handed a six-month contract, running from 17 March to 16 September, to handle communications arising from the “first wave” of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Annexes to the main contract reveal the key tasks that are entrusted to the comms gurus, both of whom are still in their 20s, which include:

  • Contributing to overall COVID-19 strategy across Government and working with other campaign agencies to deliver effective communications.
  • Advising on creative and digital work.
  • Advising on fake news mitigation strategy.
  • Developing and executing targeted social media content.
  • Assisting in the identification of vulnerable/non-compliant target audiences.
  • Attending strategy meetings at 10 Downing Street or the Cabinet Office.

There has been a backlash in recent days over the Government’s handling of major contracts related to the Coronavirus crisis. As reported by Byline Times, the Government has been using a loophole to allow it to hand multi-million-pound contracts to firms without the usual competition or scrutiny.

Many of these same contracts have been distributed to Conservative insiders – not least an £840,000 communications contracted handed to Public First, a company co-owned by James Frayne and Rachel Wolf.

Frayne is a close ally of the Prime Minister’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings, having co-founded the short-lived New Frontiers Foundation with him in 2003 and worked alongside him at the Department for Education under Michael Gove. Wolf co-authored the 2019 Conservative Party Manifesto.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “Public First was awarded a contract to carry out focus groups across the UK in response to the COVID-19 crisis. This has been published on in the normal way. This work helped to ensure that vitally important public health messages the Government was issuing were the right ones, and it will continue to inform future COVID-19 campaign activity.”

The Cabinet Office denies awarding the contract to Public First due to its owners’ relationship with Conservative Party figures, saying that “the Government works with a number of suppliers to provide polling and focus group work and has done for decades”.

In reference to Topham Guerin, the Cabinet Office said: “Topham Guerin was procured to produce a digital strategy to support the Government’s COVID-19 public campaign. 

“The approach helped to increase the effectiveness and engagement of our public health messages, reaching tens of millions of people across TV, outdoor, print and digital channels.”

Topham Guerin Limited has been approached for comment.


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