A leading executive at the controversial data firm Cambridge Analytica advised the Foreign Office on lessons from Donald Trump’s election campaign, HuffPost has learned.
Mark Turnbull, who was filmed by undercover reporters describing himself as “a master of disguise”, was one of two experts from the company’s SCL parent group who attended a special event hosted by the FCO last year.
Cambridge Analytica is accused of secretly harvesting up to 50 million Facebook users’ personal data to better identify individuals who could be targeted and influenced by specific political ad campaigns.
The firm, which boasts it has influenced 200 political campaigns worldwide, was hired by Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, but has denied that data acquired through Facebook was used to assist his efforts to win the election.
The ‘Diplomacy in the Information Age’ conference featured Turnbull and colleague David Wilkinson making a presentation on how to use data in political campaigns, citing Trump’s 2016 Presidential run.
The pair gave their expertise to officials and others at Foreign Office’s prestigious Wilton Park conference centre in Sussex in February 2017. The agenda for the conference was first highlighted by INSURGE Intelligence journalist Nafeez Ahmed in December 2017,
The title of their lecture was listed as “examining the application of data in the recent US Presidential election”.
Labour told HuffPost that Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had questions to answer on Turnbull’s advice session and whether he was paid by the taxpayer.
On the same day, the FCO’s European Union and International Data chief Paul Gaskell summed up the conclusions of the event.
The three-day forum was opened by Jonathan Allen, then acting director general of Defence and Intelligence at the Foreign Office. He is now the UK Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, based in New York.
Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry told HuffPost: “Let us be clear what this reveals: the company that - according to the accounts we have seen, and by the videotaped admission of their own former boss - are alleged to have used dubiously-acquired Facebook data to manipulate the outcome of the US Presidential election, were invited three months later to brief government officials on the lessons to be learned from their activities.
“That raises three very basic questions: what on earth did the Foreign Office feel they had to learn from that briefing; was taxpayers’ money used to pay for that briefing; and were any Foreign Office ministers aware that it was taking place, or subsequently informed of the findings? We will be demanding answers to those questions immediately.”
The Wilton Park revelation came as Downing Street revealed that the Foreign Office had had communications contract with SCL Group since 2008. The Home Office and the Ministry of Defence had also signed contracts with the firm, but both have since expired.
Turnbull, managing director of CA Political Global, was caught on camera by Channel 4 News this week boasting alongside fellow boss Alexander Nix about tactics they could deploy to help clients win political campaigns.
Nix suggested one possible scenario, in which Turnbull would pose as a wealthy developer looking to exchange campaign finance for land. “I’m a master of disguise,” Turnbull said.
Nix has since been suspended following claims the firm advocated bribery, entrapment and the use of sex workers.
Theresa May told the Commons on Wednesday that the Government had no “current” contracts with SCL, as the Scottish National Party raised several links between it and the Tory party.
No10 said that Cambridge Analytica had approached the Tories about working for the party, but that the approach had happened “under a previous administration” - under David Cameron. But their offer was rejected when May became leader.
“An approach was made and the party decided not to take that forward,” the PM’s political spokesman said.
Wilton Park is an executive agency of the Foreign Office and provides a global forum for strategic discussion.
At its three-day conference in February 2017, the FCO aimed to “explore new opportunities for the FCO to make better use of data in diplomacy, but also emerging threats that challenge the current ways of working”.
Its aims included gaining new “ideas and recommendations for the FCO to consider in making better use of data in foreign policy” and “sharing of experiences among likeminded international partners and to encourage further collaboration between experts and the FCO through the development of a community of thought leaders on Diplomacy in the Information Age”.
Turnbull, who has worked for the Bell Pottinger PR firm, was listed for the event as Managing Director of ‘SCL Elections’.
Whistleblowers have claimed that SCL and Cambridge Analytica are “one and the same”. SCL Elections created Cambridge Analytica.
Turnbull was caught on camera by Channel 4 News saying the company could create “proxy organizations” to feed negative material about opposition candidates onto the internet and social media.
Turnball said “charities or activist groups” were useful for such a purpose. The unflattering material could be spread through the internet, but without branding or other identifiers that could be traced back Cambridge Analytica.
Johnson was asked by Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Tom Tughendhat about No.10′s revelation that the FCO had a communications contract with SCL. But the Foreign Secretary suggested he was unaware of the financial link.
The Foreign Office and Cambridge Analytica have been asked to comment.
UPDATE: The Foreign Office later produced a paper summarising the outcome of the event in April 2017.
Wilton Park programme director Thomas Hoare said that one of the themes of the session was that “the FCO needs to learn from itself and others”.
Referring to the Turnbull presentation on Trump, Hoare wrote that “data miners are at the vanguard now”.
He wrote: “Nowadays, there is less ability to control the narrative, so the choice is whether to feed the beast or ignore it. Trump understands this and has bypassed the 3 Ps (push, pull, and profile) of marketing communication.
“This throws up enormous issues about privacy and the use of big data to target individuals. There are differing views of, for example, Google in the US (spooky) and the UK (creepy). Targeting and knowledge gathering is seen as more sinister in the latter context.”
He added a note of caution that the discussion produced, however: “There was a reservation of judgement by some as to both the unique nature of this approach, and the quantifiable impact of data on the US election. Work to quantify this impact is in train.”