Profile: One man and his dogfight: BA's surrender in the 'dirty tricks' case is a bitter pill for PR chief David Burnside. But the tough Ulsterman is aiming at higher things. Chris Blackhurst reports

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The Independent Online
ON THE wall in the British Airways shuttle lounge at Belfast airport there is a plaque commemorating its opening - not by the Queen, nor a minor royal, government minister or Northern Ireland big-wig; nor even Lord King or Sir Colin Marshall, BA's top two - but by David Burnside, the airline's public affairs director.

Tomorrow Burnside will be in the public eye again, when BA apologises and agrees to pay Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic pounds 3.5m in libel damages and costs arising from the 'dirty tricks' campaign waged against Virgin by BA. That allegedly included cold-calling Virgin customers and persuading them to switch to BA, spreading harmful stories about the financial state of Branson's airline and using private investigators.

In public, Burnside will put a brave face on the debacle. He will tell journalists that much of what BA did was nothing more than normal, healthy business practice. Similarly, questions about his own future, as an architect of at least part of the battle against Virgin and as BA's prime mouthpiece, are also likely to be dismissed.

In private, though, he is hurt and angry. Saying sorry, where BA is concerned, is not his style. 'David is not used to paying lip service to anything or anybody - he feels very badly about it,' says one of his friends.

Normally, a PR man would not merit such attention. He is, after all, merely a messenger for more powerful people. His job is to seek publicity not for himself but for them. Burnside acknowledged as much when he explained he was reluctant to be interviewed for this article. Later, he said his lawyers had forbidden him to co-operate ahead of tomorrow's hearing.

But occasionally, a media spokesman becomes so closely identified with the people and causes he represents that the distinction is academic. Sir Tim Bell and Sir Bernard Ingham managed it during the Thatcher years; David Burnside has achieved a similar identification with BA.

By the same token, there are few other PR men who enjoy the degree of access and patronage Burnside has. His is an unwritten quid pro quo: newspapers write flattering pieces about BA, MPs lobby on its behalf; in return, they are invited on overseas junkets by the airline.

As he told the Select Committee on Members' Interests in 1988: 'It seems to me it would be every bit as consistent with a Member of Parliament going to a ball-bearing factory and being given lunch. Our business is flying people around. Their business is making ball-bearings in Scunthorpe.'

If BA was the only string to Burnside's bow, he would be a figure of substance: the senior PR man in a glamorous, high-profile industry; the spokesman for a national flag-carrier; the head of one of the slickest publicity machines in Britain (with a staff of 38, 50 consultancies in 80 countries and a budget of more than pounds 4m), and arguably the country's most powerful in- house PR man. That has earned him a string of industry awards and outside posts: he sits on the Northern Ireland Tourist Board; is a member of the CBI council and a former non-executive director of the European newspaper.

When you include his political connections and aspirations, he becomes truly formidable. He was born in 1951, near Ballymoney, North Antrim, in Ulster. In Belfast-speak, he was 'a culchie', a hick. Even today, his accent is thick and hard, more country than city. North Antrim is farming territory, a fortress of Unionist Presbyterianism and Ian Paisley, the local MP.

He went to Coleraine Academical Institution, the local Protestant boys' school, and then to Queen's University in Belfast to study political science and ancient history.

Once in Belfast, he immersed himself in politics. The Protestant backlash to Catholic nationalism was just beginning. At university, he was the youngest candidate in the elections to the Northern Ireland Asembly. He was 21.

He lost, but his appetite had been whetted. As soon as he could, he moved into professional political wheeler-dealing. 'I have always been interested in the marketing of political philosophies,' he once said. 'If Northern Ireland - and everything good there - had had the benefit of modern PR techniques, things could be so much better. The Unionist tradition has been misrepresented.'

In 1975 he emerged as press officer for William Craig's Vanguard Party, a far-right Unionist group. As Vanguard organised Loyalist strikes, the thin, dark and boyish-looking Burnside found his vocation. 'He was one of the most committed members of Vanguard,' Craig said last week. 'He understood PR and got on very well with the media. We both benefited from each other. He had a very intelligent understanding of political theory.'

Vanguard drew its members from a section of society that the BA public affairs director still holds dear. 'He has never gone with the county set,' said a friend. 'He has always tried to articulate the concerns of the Protestant working class.'

Craig's subsequent moderation also enabled his aide to exhibit two other facets of his character: pragmatism and loyalty. While other Vanguard members deserted their leader, Burnside stayed and changed with him. His faith in the maverick MP paid off. In 1978 Craig sponsored him to spend a year at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.

The next step was a big jump, to PR officer for the Institute of Directors in London. At his interview at the IoD he apparently admired the portraits of Cromwell and William III. 'With those on the walls, you can't fail to give me a job,' he said, in a typically half-mocking, half-serious way.

His caustic wit, coupled with his direct, often abrupt manner, made him an odd choice of spokesman for the pukka institute. Yet nobody could deny him his unfailing energy or his instinctive ability to reach the right people. With its PR man pushing MPs, editors and broadcasters, the IoD became as well-known as the CBI.

In 1982 he stood for North Antrim in the Ulster Assembly elections. His opponents made much play of his absence from the constituency, and he was defeated. Today, he lives in Pimlico, London, during the week and on Friday afternoons returns to his wife and young daughter at their traditionally furnished farmhouse in Antrim. It is there, say his friends, that he comes into his own. He fishes, shoots, drinks Black Bush and talks Ulster politics.

In 1984, after toying with joining Tory Central Office, he landed the deputy PR job at BA. It was made clear he would have total charge eventually. Within a year, the top job was his. He was 33.

He enjoyed an instant rapport with Lord King, who shared his passion for right-wing politics and had a similarly uncompromising, abrasive manner. Together with Sir Colin Marshall, they saw off the challenge of Freddie Laker; streamlined the airline for privatisation; swallowed British Caledonian; put paid to the expansionist plans of SAS, and guided the new, slicker BA on an aggressive, marketing-led path. All the time they were lobbying, persuading, chiding and cajoling.

Like his senior colleagues, Burnside is not an aviation buff. Two of his favourite phrases are 'dividend' as in, 'What is the dividend for BA?' when discussing a new proposal, and one borrowed from Lord King: 'Competition is he who bleeds least.'

From his base in BA's St James's headquarters, he plots a ruthless course. His unerring conviction and his love of fighting fire with fire have earned him the loyalty and admiration of staff.

Most of his time is spent on BA business, the rest is devoted to Ulster. In the wake of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which he naturally opposes, he formed Friends of the Union, a dining, thinking group, with the late Ian Gow MP. Today his own friends comprise such seasoned right-wing politicians as Viscount Cranborne and Norman Tebbit; professional networkers, such as Brian Basham, the City PR man and BA consultant; and Ian Watson, the former European editor; as well as fellow plain-speakers such as Richard Littlejohn, the Sun columnist.

Like-minded men enjoy his company - although his frequent lapses into silence can be unsettling. When he wants to, he can be charming and entertaining, although some women find his macho Ulster exterior hard to bear. His friends maintain his apparent toughness is a shield for a shy, more vulnerable interior. But even they do not seem so sure. 'There is always a reserve with him, he is always wary,' said Cranborne. Part of the reason, of course, may be a long-standing fear for his own safety.

'His ultimate ambition,' added Cranborne, 'is to stand as a Unionist candidate in Northern Ireland. He would be a good politician, he is good at cultivating contacts and knowing who the movers and shakers are.'

Before that, though, Burnside may have to repair his own external image. In Branson, someone he has been heard to describe, typically, as 'a boy scout, who should grow up and get into the man's world' and as 'Richard who?', he has so far met his match.

Revelations about his external business activities on the This Week television programme last year, however innocent and trivial, showed him in a different light to people who had thought him more interested in politics than mere pecuniary gain.

And somehow the Burnside approach, like that of Lord King, who retires shortly, does not square with the caring Nineties. Despite reports to the contrary, he is said to get on well with the milder Marshall, King's successor (defenders of Burnside's role in the Virgin battle are quick to point out that he reports to Sir Colin on a regular basis). The betting, though, is that sooner, rather than later, he will throw himself full-time into politics. Westminster has been warned.

(Photograph omitted)