Branson: Behind the Mask by Tom Bower, book review: Is Sir Richard a buccaneering tycoon or the business world's Blofeld?


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The Independent Culture

Ask anyone to name our best-known businessman and the chances are they will say Richard Branson.

For many, the Virgin founder is the epitome of the daring, buccaneering tycoon – one with added lustre because of his seemingly permanent youth and casual, hippy manner. Part of his appeal, too, is his apparent, oh-so-sincere, caring attitude.

Branson is, in short, the pin-up entrepreneur of our time. What’s more, when there is mud, when doubts are raised about his ability, when he does something that goes against the image, which is a little bit sharp, nothing happens. He gets away with it; his reputation remains firmly intact.

Which is why Tom Bower is so angry. In fact, so furious is Bower that he wants a third crack at Branson. First time, 15 years ago, he produced Branson. Then he produced a longer version, taking in Branson’s stalled efforts to take over the collapsed Northern Rock. Now comes Branson: Behind the Mask.

In old Fleet Street parlance there is a phrase for this sort of work: demolition job. On forensic page after page, Branson is undone. When the Virgin boss succeeds it’s because he’s displayed calculating cunning and got the better of someone else, nabbing their idea on the cheap, securing a low price, making them take all the risk. When he fails, it’s because he’s promising more than he can deliver, notably with his much-vaunted space flights that have yet to materialise.

Bower gives no ground. In his eyes, Branson is akin to a Blofeld character, stroking his cat while plotting his next conquering, profile-raising move. That, of course, is not how we see him. Nor, having met Branson many times, is it how he comes across. I’ve always found him to be charmingly disorganised, on top of everything but never far away from chaos.

There are giveaways, however – ones that make me wonder and Bower would rightfully seize upon. Branson is surprisingly big on detail, conversations are recorded in a notebook on his lap, he’s good at absorbing information without giving much away. The first occasion I encountered Branson, we journeyed to Gatwick, where he was due to meet newly-qualified Virgin air hostesses. We travelled by train, just me and him, from London, standard class, and when the steward came round with the drinks trolley, Branson bought teas and coffees for everyone around us.

They were struck by his generosity. I was also impressed – he had no need to make such a gesture. Doubtless, Bower would scoff and maintain this was yet another piece of cynical Branson audience-pleasing, self-serving.

Which interpretation of his behaviour is correct? The truth is they could both be right.

What I craved, after Bower’s onslaught, is the view from the other side. Not, the pro-Branson guff – we’ve been subjected to that aplenty – but what Branson actually says to the charges laid against him by Bower. And not dismissive responses but full explanations.

That’s what Bower has produced here: a lengthy charge-sheet. Branson is not the only one to be indicted. The army of hangers-on, the advisers to the seemingly great man – they should be made to account for themselves. So too, sadly, should the press who have never failed to be seduced by the Branson glitz and have never subjected him to close, questioning scrutiny.

Bower’s work is uncomfortable, required reading, an antidote to PR that should be taught on every journalism course. What is required now is some answers, for Branson to subject himself to Bower’s interrogation. It would make for great television and, dare I say it, a fourth and final book.