Battle of the Airlines: PR adviser at forefront of smear tactics: Martyn Gregory reports on BA's 'dirty tricks' campaign, which he uncovered as producer/director of Thames Television's This Week programme

BRIAN BASHAM, the man at the cutting edge of the smear campaign against Richard Branson and Virgin Atlantic, flew out of Britain last Friday night on a British Airways plane bound for Malawi, writes Martyn Gregory.

When he checked in, he was upgraded from economy to business class. His plans to fly economy look odd given that he made pounds 1.3m from selling his shares in Broad Street Associates, his old firm, months before it collapsed two years ago.

At his new firm, Warwick Corporate, he continues to charge large sums for his financial public relations. While most rivals act as messengers for companies, Mr Basham takes on their problems as if they were his own. He specialises in 'crisis PR'.

He is extremely close to his clients and fiercely protective of them, especially during big deals such as Argyll's failed bid for Distillers - which Guinness won - and Hanson's purchase of a 2.8 per cent stake in ICI.

His style was arguably more suited to the Eighties, when big takeovers were common, than the Nineties when companies are more interested in a continuing relationship with the press.

A classic example of his work was for the Fayed brothers in the Harrods takeover war. He spent years criticising Tiny Rowland and Lonhro through his network of contacts in the press. It is said he invented the story that the Fayeds came from an ancient Egyptian family and that they possessed plenty of inherited wealth.

The Department of Trade and Industry inspectors who reported on the Harrods affair criticised him for his role in the campaign. British Airways were in no doubt about the sort af PR they were paying for.

David Burnside, BA's director of public affairs who took him on, certainly was not in doubt. Mr Basham and Mr Burnside are good friends. They drink together and do business together. And before they started smearing Richard Branson together, they both used to work for Robert Maxwell.

When Maxwell launched the European in 1991 he paid Broad Street Associates pounds 250,000 to handle the City PR account. With BA's permission Mr Burnside was already being paid to act as media adviser on the launch.