Sarah Sands: It's business, Richard. Of course it's personal

In the battle for ITV, Rupert Murdoch may seem the villain to cheeky, friendly Branson. But it's really a struggle between a predator and a shark

Share

So who is the outsider now? Richard Branson's successful media campaign against Lord King's British Airways in the 1980s was based on David and Goliath. In one of his many self-defining statements, Branson said: "We're the cheeky airline having fun at the expense of a dinosaur."

The personality of the honest underdog has served him well and he was quick to reprise the part last week. Did you hear that emotional catch in his voice when he described his new adversary Rupert Murdoch as a "threat to democracy", a figure who made and broke governments? There was a touch of Tony Blair in the performance, another good man besieged by evil.

Done down, maybe. But Branson is hardly the innocent abroad. He has become one of the wealthiest men in England, worth an estimated £1.4bn. He is no longer a scrappy entrepreneur standing on establishment toes, but a media giant himself, a significant shareholder in NTL, shortly to be renamed - for no one doubts the power of the brand name - Virgin Media.

He would be bigger still should he succeed in taking over ITV, but the next thing he knew was that James Murdoch's BSkyB had bought its way into the deal: a share big enough to influence the future of ITV, small enough, at less than 20 per cent, not to worry the regulatory authorities.

It was Murdoch and, worse, Murdoch Jnr, who had pulled off the kind of insolent stunt that we might once have expected from Virgin. As for his dad's response to the deal, it is now part of City folklore. "That's my boy..."

The two men have built their empires in contrasting styles. Murdoch is a figure of hate in liberal Britain, accused of destroying media standards of decency. He has not been secretive, but nor has he sought publicity.

He is said to be prudish in his own views, but has never let that get in the way of a deal. It is assumed that, last week, he called off the unpleasant deal that his American publishing and television subsidiaries had arranged with O J Simpson not because he thought it was wrong, but because it was looking bad for business.

Branson, on the other hand, has achieved brand imperialism for Virgin partly through pushing his own brand, a kind of "good guy" figure. He has achieved the "studentification" of Britain, peddling music and travel and umpteen brand extensions, each personally promoted.

For Murdoch, an Australian who is now an American citizen, Britain is merely a place where he does some of his business. He does not mind much what happens here, as long as it is not bad for his business. Because they believe that he can influence elections, politicians prostrate themselves before him. In the case of our Prime Minister, they fly all the way to California to do so. Murdoch said in a recent interview that it was a bit of a bore coming to Britain because Tony Blair and Gordon Brown always wanted to see him, and it took up his time.

Richard Branson isn't terribly interested in the fate of British governments, although he has been outspoken in his opposition to the Iraq war. He has told me the political process reminded him of school and that he would run a mile from entering politics. This does not mean he is uninterested in political power. It is just he would prefer to run things outside the electoral process. When his mother Eve once proudly boasted that her son would become Prime Minister, I think she underestimated his ambition.

In this way, Rupert Murdoch could claim that he is less of a threat to democracy than Branson. He cares only about money. The star of his swanky summit at Pebble Beach this summer was not Tony Blair but the creators of MySpace. Indeed, as the influence of national governments is constrained by globalism, Murdoch needs them less.

Meanwhile, this summer Richard Branson was holding talks in Necker about conflict resolution. He wants to create a government of elders who would act as a branch of the United Nations. The sort of people who show up to a Branson summit are Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan, Bono.

Supporters of Rupert Murdoch claim that Branson is actually a rather conventional figure. Even his businesses are about gaps in the market rather than spotting the new. Why was Branson so slow to see the point of the internet, crow Murdoch's men. One reason could be that Branson lacks the megalomaniac business instincts of Rupert Murdoch. He is a truer entrepreneur in that he deals in businesses that he loves rather than in markets that he craves. When I asked him why he had not bought into the internet, he replied simply that it did not personally interest him.

I also asked Branson whether he would yet consider buying a newspaper. He had the means and it might be a useful vehicle of communication for him. He gave that slightly nervous giggle of his and said that he had already done some journalism in his youth, when he ran a student magazine. He could have added that he did not need to own newspapers to get them to trumpet his cause. The Sun, for instance, was his cheerleader during the fight against British Airways. All the hot-air balloon flights and beach junkets in the world will not get him The Sun's support now.

The battle over ITV may remind Branson of his last unhappy business experience, his bid for the lottery. There he was, the people's champion, offering a people's lottery against the starchier, less appealing business that was Camelot. Then suddenly Dianne Thompson at Camelot appealed to the courts, claiming that the National Lottery Commission was favouring Branson. In a reversal that stunned Branson, sympathy was suddenly with Camelot. They had become the underdog and they won the licence. Branson accused the commission of failing to take a "risk". He was still determined to portray himself as an outsider.

Rupert Murdoch stays aloof from the kind of social networking that got Branson into trouble. That is largely because he does not need to. His son-in-law Matthew Freud can smooth the way perfectly well. Freud is at the heart of the liberal celebrity culture that Branson should claim by right. A recent Freud dinner I attended included Sting and Trudie Styler, Jemima Khan, Annie Lennox and Madonna - as well as The Independent Editor-in-Chief Simon Kelner.

Both Branson and Murdoch can claim to have built up their businesses themselves. Branson began his mail order record business, at 19, in a basement. Murdoch was born into the newspaper business but has created a media empire beyond the imagining of his father. He likes to say that Sky was launched in 1989 as a "construction hut in the mud", for the born-in-a-shoebox business model is essential to myth-making. One of the most contemptuous things said of Conrad Black, the fallen newspaper proprietor, was that he went to school in a chauffeur-driven car.

Both Branson and Murdoch could relate more readily to the chauffeur than to the barefoot-in-the-street childhood of some businessmen. Branson was educated at Stowe, the son of a lawyer and an air hostess. Murdoch went to Oxford University - where he is now funding a media centre - as a Rhodes scholar.

Both can genuinely claim to be risk-takers. When Sky was launched Murdoch was said to be losing £10m a week. Branson told me, rather proudly, of starting Virgin planes: "You know what they say, the way to become a millionaire is to start as a billionaire and buy an airline." Both men are prepared to rack up frightening debt; both sail close to the wind; both are survivors. They have a sort of high testosterone respect for each other. Richard Branson said: "I admire him as a businessman. He knows how to play poker. He's playing it on the basis that he thinks he can get away with it."Andrew Neil says: "Murdoch fears and respects Branson. He knows the Virgin name is potent among the Sky demographic."

That is the real difference between the two men. Murdoch is a genius businessman but there is a kind of creative destruction about his work. The British establishment that Rupert Murdoch despises seems quirky and helpless in contrast to him. Britain may not be as powerful as America or China but it is our country and Murdoch's indifference towards it makes us prickly.

If this were a frontier movie, there is no doubt Murdoch and his boy James would look more villainous than Richard Branson and his boy Sam, a gentle surfer dude with ambitions to sing or act. He would get on better with Lachlan, Rupert Murdoch's eldest, who fled the business, than with James. It is to Branson's credit that he has not forged children in his image.

Those who know James have said for years that he has the M factor, the drive and will. Perhaps the only member of the family with more intense ambition is his second wife, Wendi. It was a late criticism of Rupert Murdoch that he had never really groomed an heir. Now he has plenty.

Richard Branson claims that Virgin staff are known as "mavericks in paradise". Yet Virgin has a reputation for ruthless business dealing. As one holiday operator told me: "It is the one company that won't cut you any slack."

The double act has worked well for Branson, the manner of a hippie, the business instincts of a shark. I remember having lunch with him at Holland Park when he tried to sell me personal insurance before the soup arrived.

When I spent a few days with his entourage this summer, I had a different impression. He talked of withdrawing from the business, which more or less ran itself now. He was finding some of the publicity stunts less fun and was hoping that Sam might become more of a Virgin figurehead.

The man who once boasted "Books? No way" was reading history. I asked what he would do if, inconceivably, his business collapsed overnight. He said that he would go and live in Bali. He did not say that he would rebuild.

The danger for businessmen-philosophers is that they are prey for businessmen-predators. Of course this was the moment for Murdoch to move in. And for all Branson's rhetoric about the end of democracy, it isn't really. It is just about business. And unfortunately, business is personal.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own