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.

Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week