Faber & Faber, £20. Order for £16 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Branson: Behind the Mask by Tom Bower, book review: Is Sir Richard a buccaneering tycoon or the business world's Blofeld?
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.
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated
tvAn expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle
artLee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 The BBC has just done more to eradicate ‘terrorism’ than all our wars since 9/11
- 2 Does the path to true love really lie in these 36 questions?
- 3 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 4 Presidential optical illusion offers clues to how brain processes faces
- 5 Roald Dahl letter warning student to 'eschew beastly adjectives' rediscovered after 35 years
Ed Sheeran texts Noel Gallagher to offer him tickets after that Wembley Stadium rant
Heavy metal producer's corpse to be mutilated by models as per his dying wish
Costa Book Awards: H is for Hawk named book of the year
Run DMC's Darryl McDaniels: 'Kendrick Lamar is killing it - but radios are too afraid to play him'
Roald Dahl letter warning student to 'eschew beastly adjectives' rediscovered after 35 years
'We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,' say Greens
French court convicts three over homophobic tweets, in case hailed as a 'significant victory' by LGBT rights campaigners
Greece elections: Syriza and EU on collision course after election win for left-wing party
British Muslim school children suffering a backlash of abuse following Paris attacks
British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford faces execution by firing squad in Indonesia
Louise Mensch says 'F**K YOU' in explosive tweets about David Cameron, Saudi Embassy and the Queen over King Abdullah tributes