Sitting in his sparsely decorated offices close to St James's Park undergound station, London, the soberly dressed figure of Roger Turner, United's head, could not look more different from Richard Branson, the colourful Virgin entrepreneur, if he tried. Yet, Mr Turner and Mr Branson, as the United chief was quick to point out, may have a common bond. A few years ago, Mr Branson's Virgin Atlantic airline was targeted in an infamous "dirty tricks" campaign by British Airways, its much larger rival. Now, Mr Turner firmly believes United is itself being threatened.
The disclosure in the Independent this week that a senior external public relations consultant to British Gas had handed out an anonymous document critical of Clare Spottiswoode, boss of Ofgas, the industry regulator, had forced Mr Turner to re-examine the anonymous criticisms that have been made against United.
"We suffered real damage," said Mr Turner. "Because of what was being said about us, we could not develop some business relationships." The smear campaign, he said, "has cost us millions of pounds - I would love to know where it came from."
One of the documents circulated about United detailed how the company had used a residential address in Fulham, west London, to make multiple applications for licences to secure gas.
Ten companies owned by United directors had made the applications. It all seemed sinister and somehow underhand. What the document, and the subsequent press coverage, did not highlight, was that the address was the home of United's companies formations solicitor, Malcolm Fontayne.
He was merely complying with official filing requirements to give a home address. What the coverage also failed to mention was that the authorities knew all along what United was doing and had given their approval.