Leading Article: A case for Inspector DTI

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The Independent Online
A SENSE of injustice lingers in the air despite the resounding victory won by Richard Branson and his Virgin Atlantic airline over British Airways and its chairman, Lord King. Virgin Atlantic survived the relentless campaign of smears and dirty tricks to which it was submitted. Mr Branson has been comprehensively vindicated. Lord King, who wrapped himself in the flag as BA's chairman but behaved like a bully, has been humbled. But what of the two other companies whose competition he resented? Air Europe, which had built up a network of scheduled European flights, folded in March 1991. BA itself took over Dan Air, its main domestic competitor, last November, having helped to weaken it. The price paid was a notional pounds 1 - though BA also agreed to take on pounds 35m of the company's debts.

Nobody has suggested that BA's campaign against these two airlines was the primary cause of their demise. But enough evidence has emerged to show that they, too, were the object of dirty tricks. For example, Sadig Khalifa, the BA employee who hacked into the computer records of rivals, has testified in an affidavit that BA's special team gained access to Air Europe's system. Being unable to crack Dan Air's, they simply telephoned the company's agents at Gatwick and gained information by impersonating Dan Air staff.

Although there was a clear case for referring the takeover of Dan Air to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, decided the public interest would be better served by giving BA the go-ahead. The aim, it seems, was to preserve jobs at Gatwick, and to keep Dan Air's slots in British hands - at the expense of the wider public interest of maintaining competition.

All commercial companies like to see their competitors in difficulties if they will benefit from them. They may even be delighted to see them going out of business. In the case of BA, all the evidence that has now emerged suggests that there was a calculated strategy - conspiracy would not be too strong a word - to extinguish or disable three much smaller rivals. Are those responsible to be punished only by a fine, a measure of humiliation and, probably, some commercial loss?

It is in the power of the Department of Trade and Industry to ensure that their activities are submitted to further scrutiny. In its own inspections, carried out under the Companies Act of 1985, the DTI has an immensely powerful tool. This was used to good effect, for example, in the department's three inquiries into Robert Maxwell's affairs in the early Seventies, and into the Guinness and House of Fraser takeovers.

The DTI itself can decide to investigate the affairs of any company, whether it be for fraudulent practices, misconduct of its affairs, or for withholding information about its affairs from shareholders: the latter might be the most appropriate in this case. Normally, the DTI appoints a QC and a senior accountant to carry out the investigation. We have already suggested that Lord King should resign immediately as BA's chairman. The arrival of a duo of powerful inspectors would provide a suitable monument to his stewardship; and it would be well placed eventually to demonstrate whether his deputy and designated successor, Sir Colin Marshall, was sufficiently untainted to succeed him.