How Two Right-Wing Meme Merchants Scored a £3 Million Government Coronavirus Contract
Sam Bright tracks the rise of Topham Guerin, the New Zealand ‘propaganda pair’ in charge of the UK Government’s online Coronavirus communications
Attempting to gain a semblance of control over the Coronavirus crisis, the UK Government has embarked on an unprecedented spending splurge. The Conservatives – usually known for their fiscal prudence – have shelled out tens of millions of pounds in a desperate and largely unchecked private sector procurement programme.
Masks, ventilators, gowns, testing swabs and a litany of other items have been urgently solicited from firms, without the usual competition and checks. Taking advantage of a European Union law that allows governments to avoid competitive tendering during an “emergency”, Whitehall departments have been throwing around more fast cash than a Monaco playboy.
One of the recipients of the Government’s largesse, as revealed by Byline Times last week, is the communications startup Topham Guerin. The Kiwi firm, that worked for the Conservative Party during the 2019 UK General Election campaign, has been awarded a £3 million contract for handling Government Coronavirus digital communications from March until September.
The Topham Guerin contract marks a trend in the Government’s great procurement binge, with several large contracts handed out to known quantities. One of the beneficiaries – to the tune of £840,000 – has been a company called Public First, a policy development platform co-owned by Conservative insiders James Frayne and Rachel Wolf.
The former 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 later working alongside the Downing Street enforcer at the Department for Education under Michael Gove. As for Wolf, she co-authored the 2019 Conservative Party Manifesto.
A separate company has meanwhile managed to score a £252 million contract to supply an undisclosed number of face masks to the NHS. A senior board advisor to the company, Andrew Mills, is one of 12 advisors to the Government’s Board of Trade, which is chaired by International Trade Secretary Liz Truss.
In any normal setting, this seemingly preferential mentality would make sense. In a time of crisis, people instinctively fall back on companies they have worked with before, and can trust. But when it’s the Government, and mates of the regime are raking in millions in rushed contracts paid for by the taxpayer, the system looks less like a sensible alliance with dependable partners and more like a Putin-esque funding racket.
“It cannot be the case that Government contracts, even during a pandemic where fast decision making is essential, are awarded to political insiders and friends of this government and its ministers,” Labour MP Dawn Butler told Byline Times. “That’s cronyism, or worse.”
This perception is only intensified when the commissioned companies are not necessarily “world-beating” experts in the service they have been requisitioned to deliver. For example, questions have been raised about why the Government handed a £108 million contract for personal protective equipment (PPE) to a small pest control company with assets of just £18,000. As many outside observers have remarked – indeed it is the subject of a legal challenge from Jolyon Maugham QC – it seems as though the Tories could have picked a firm more equipped for the job.
The case of Topham Guerin is less clear. The firm, last year described as “boutique,” boasts an extensive portfolio of work. But their efforts seem to have come largely in the arena of election campaigns and right-wing political lobbying – earning them the title in the Guardian of the ‘Facebook propaganda pair’.
Boomer Memes: ‘Anger, Excitement, Pride, Fear’
On 29 May, 2019, Topham Guerin co-founder Ben Guerin appeared as a special guest at the Friedman Conference, a right-wing event hosted by the Australian Libertarian Society (ALS) and the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance (ATA).
A week before, his bootstrap firm had played a major role in propelling the right-wing Liberal Party, headed by Scott Morrison, to victory in the Australian Federal Election.
Reflecting on the social media strategy he deployed during the election, Guerin describes a campaign of highly repetitive messaging – what he calls “water dripping on a stone” – to convince voters that the opposition Labor Party would hike-up taxes. Guerin boasts an especially high-performing piece of content was an image of a dog accompanied by the message ‘tax is bad’.
In this spirit, the social media spin doctor goes on to explain how “crude,” poorly-produced memes attracted more engagement than slick, formulaic graphics.
“You’ve got to surprise people. You’ve got to shock people. Unlock and arouse an emotion in people,” he recommends, to his right-wing audience.
“The particular emotions we’ve got to unlock are arousal emotions,” he continues. “We’re talking: anger, excitement, pride, fear. Your content should be relating to one of these emotions”.
Emotive content was pumped out relentlessly by the Morrison campaign, says Guerin, and the professionalism of that content literally didn’t matter.
“That’s how you get what we call the ‘boomer memes’. Because you have to crank stuff out quickly. You couldn’t spend too long doing an artisanally perfect graphic. You’re going to slap some Calibri font on a shitty, reused meme and you’re going to publish it, and then get on to the next one. And you know what: that content is going to do better than the thing your poor graphic designer spent a week on.”
This tactic, Guerin claims, resulted in Morrison and the Liberal Party receiving twice as much engagement on social media than their Labor opponents.
“And when most of that is concentrated in marginal seats, that’s how you win an election that no-one thinks you’re going to win,” he opined, with just a hint of smugness.
Crosby to Downing Street
The 2019 Australian election wasn’t the first taste of political campaigning for Guerin and his partner Sean Topham, nor the last. The pair had cut their teeth on a contest two years earlier, drafted in by the centre-right New Zealand National Party to hold back the tide of support for Labour Leader Jacinda Ardern.
Gaining notoriety in right-wing circles, the Kiwi meme manipulators – still only in their 20s – entered the patronage of Lynton Crosby, the conservative campaigner-in-chief. According to the Guardian, Topham and Guerin consulted for CTF Partners – a communications company run by Crosby. It’s claimed 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.
It was during this period, from 2017 to summer 2019, that Topham and Guerin crossed paths with the man who would propel them into the maelstrom of a UK general election campaign.
Having run Crosby’s operation in Washington DC, Australian political strategy Isaac Levido was rushed back to his native country to help Morrison’s 2019 election bid. Operating as the deputy director of the campaign, Levido – dubbed “the new Lynton” – was evidently impressed by the work of the two Kiwi upstarts. And so, when Levido was commissioned to run the Tories’ 2019 general election bid, he brought Topham and Guerin in his suitcase.
Under the wing of Levido, the pair unleashed meme warfare of the British public. Following the model of the Australian election, Topham Guerin deployed all their expertise in shitty fonts – notably when they posted a graphic on the Conservative Party’s official social media channels, using Comic Sans.
This meme generated so much attention that ‘Comic Sans’ trended on Twitter and the internet flooded with news articles from click-hungry media outlets. This undoubtedly spread the Tory message to millions more people than would have seen a predictable, corporate illustration.
Topham Guerin deployed their cocktail of amateurism and emotion to attract attention on social media, and again ended up on the winning side – witnessing Johnson secure an 80-seat majority.
A Viral Virus
Yet, as we know, this hasn’t been the end of Topham Guerin’s involvement in Downing Street. Following a disastrous initial response to the Coronavirus pandemic (though it hasn’t got much better since), Johnson turned to his trusted allies to revamp his Government’s muddled communications.
The Prime Minister desperately rehired Levido, who in turn roped in his Kiwi meme merchants. Helping a Government to navigate a crisis wrought by a pandemic and compounded by its own dithering incompetence is not mentioned as a specialism on the Topham Guerin website. And although the company would doubtless assert that it has more in its armoury than just boomer memes, this tactic is certainly its most celebrated party trick; one that’s not necessarily suited to the seriousness of a pandemic.
It’s also fair to question whether the firm is spread too thinly. Indeed, Johnson isn’t the only leader to have called on the services of the Crosby proteges. The pair has also been hired by the New Zealand Government to lead its digital counter-COVID operation, helping the very person, Jacinda Ardern, who they campaigned against in 2017.
Helpfully, though, Ardern has a much better record of dispatching the disease than the old Etonian egomaniac.
Hancock in Hiding
The (re)hiring of Topham Guerin by the Government certainly poses some prescient questions. Is this the best company to manage the Government’s online response to Coronavirus? Was it hired due to its close relationship with the Conservative Party? And what is the public getting for its £3 million investment?
These were exactly the questions posed by Dawn Butler to Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock earlier this week. Hancock’s response was terse, bordering on rude, as he outright refused to answer the Brent MP’s questions.
“It was clear that Matt Hancock did not appreciate being questioned in regards to why specific companies were selected for multi-million pound contracts,” Butler told Byline Times. “It is essential that we get clear answers as to what contracts were handed out and to whom and what service was received in return for public money.
“It is simply a matter of transparency and accountability in Government decision making.”
Indeed this situation is no fault of the companies themselves: no company director is going to survive an AGM during which they tell their colleagues they turned down a multi million pound Government contract, no matter how well they explain the complex moral justifications. The Government is in charge, and it’s incumbent on ministers to explain their actions.
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In this spirit, Hancock’s rebuttal has only intensified Butler’s resolve to squeeze answers out of the Government, on the Topham Guerin contract, and the Government’s Coronavirus procurement plan in general.
“I will use all the Parliamentary tools and procedure available to me to probe the Government and to get to the bottom of this. We must follow the money,” she says.
“I will be formally tabling written parliamentary questions to the Secretary of State and the Department of Health to establish where the public money has been allocated and to who. The Science and Technology Select Committee, of which I am a member, will also be following up in writing with the Secretary of State to get answers to my questions.
“The public needs to know who made these decisions. There are what appears to be some very irregular contracts awarded and I will be seeking to establish the facts and to ensure this information is in the public domain.”
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”.
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 gov.uk 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”.
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.