28 OCTOBER 2000, Page 63

Is the balloon going down?

Edward Heathcoat Amory

BRANSON by Tom Bower Fourth Estate, £17.99, pp. 384 Richard Branson, I suspect, feels very hard done by at the moment. Mere months ago, he thought he had the National Lot- tery in the bag, he was friends with the Prime Minister, and even the complaints about Virgin Trains seemed to be subsid- ing. But since then events have gone against him. The Lottery, which he has wanted to run ever since John Major first mooted the idea, may yet be snatched from his grasp, his former friends from the Labour party no longer return his calls, and it's hardly been an auspicious few weeks in the train business.

How did it all go wrong? First, the Lot- tery commissioners made such a spectacu- lar hash of their responsibilities that they left themselves open to a legal challenge from Camelot, who are now back in the race to spin those coloured balls for anoth- er seven years. Second, Tom Bower's book about the Virgin King was published, revealing to the public a very different man behind the cardie.

If Bower's picture of Branson is correct, he is obviously unsuitable to run an institu- tion like the Lottery on which so much of our sports, arts and culture have now, for better or worse, come to rely. The tycoon in Bower's book has taken, in the past, a cavalier attitude to the law. He has treated his associates ruthlessly, unfairly and unpleasantly. His business empire is shrouded in secrecy, and neither we, nor presumably the Lottery commissioners, can make any clear judgment as to his real financial standing. He is a self-serving publicity-seeker with bad judgment and worse morals.

But has Bower been fair? Or is his book, as Branson claims, riven with 'inaccuracies', and the Virgin King really a decent man, who, as he wrote recently, can 'sleep in bed at night knowing I have always tried to do what I thought was best, not just for myself, but for others'?

This is, it seems to me, not a difficult rid- dle to solve. If Bower's book really was riven with inaccuracies, then Branson, who Issued his first writ at the age of 18 and has relied heavily on his learned friends ever

since, would certainly have sued him. Bran- son has issued a legal challenge to Bower over an article in the Evening Standard, but this hardly constitutes an attack on the book itself. Branson's unaccustomed timid- ity is the best evidence of the documentary truth behind Bower's facts.

But the other charge that has been lev- elled at Bower is that rather than working as an objective arbiter, weighing his subject in the scales of justice, he has acted as counsel for the prosecution, choosing his facts and his tone to put the tycoon in the worst possible light.

I think there are two answers to this accusation. The first is that had Bower's book weighed the Beardie like a judge's summing up, none of us would have read it, and it would probably not have been pub- lished. Instead, it is a compulsively good read.

Americans do this kind of red-blooded business journalism rather well, because they believe that money is intrinsically interesting. We Britons, on the other hand, find finance rather vulgar and embarrass- ing. As a result, our financial journalism is often coy and dull. Bower is an outstanding exception to this dismal rule.

Second, the Bower book was like a small rowing boat, paddled against the vast tide of Virgin's publicity department. Partly from fear of his legal eagles, partly because he appeared to walk on water, there has been almost no adverse coverage of Mr Branson until now. So Bower had to put his case in the strongest possible terms, if he was not to be drowned out by the hagio- graphic chorus.

As it happens, Bower has more than managed to make himself heard. In part, this was because his book was serialised in the Daily Mail, But it is also a tribute to his reputation, built by taking on some of the most challenging and litigious figures in British business, including Mohammed Al Fayed, Robert Maxwell and Tiny Rowland.

They all discovered that Mr Bower is that almost extinct breed, a crusading investigative journalist with such scrupu- lous respect for the facts that he is nearly impossible to trip up. Now Richard Bran- son has made the same discovery, and it may well cost him the chance to run the National Lottery. The tide of informed opinion has turned against the Virgin King.

The government, and Lord Burns, for- mer permanent secretary at the Treasury who has now been appointed to sort out the mess over who should run the Lottery, know that Branson may still be the Peo- ple's Choice. But sufficient questions have now been raised about him that should he be chosen, and then go on to fail, the credi- bility of the government, and a number of ministerial careers would be on the line. The safe course may, in the end, be to give Camelot another seven years.

That is not to say that Mr Branson is a

monster. I personally have no liking for him. When I worked for The Spectator and wrote an article that was critical of him, he rang the then editor and claimed I was a liar. But there are many worse men in the world of business. Bower's book reveals illegality, but it was in the past. Branson is not crooked, not a Maxwell or a Fayed. But he is a fraud and a hypocrite, and that is what sticks in the throat of anyone who has had dealings with him.

His carefully cultivated public image of the open-handed, open-faced man of the people who can sleep soundly at night knowing that he has acted for the best in this best of all possible worlds is just self- serving rubbish. No one who reads this book will ever take Mr Branson's smile at face value again.

This is good news for us, but it is bad news for the Virgin brands. They rely, to a huge extent, on their owner's personal prestige. When you travel on a Virgin train or plane, buy Virgin vodka, or drink a Vir- gin Cola, you are buying into the Bearded Buccaneer's lifestyle. Should the public turn against their cardigan-wearing hero, then the Virgin empire could prove to be a remarkably fragile edifice. Thanks to Bower, the air may finally be leaking out of the Branson balloon.

The author is a political columnist on the Daily Mail.