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Politics of media: Is spinmeister Branson losing his touch?

Say what you like about Richard Branson (and for legal reasons you're often not allowed to) but he's always played his political cards very cleverly.

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In the Thatcher era he went from the man who challenged Mrs T's favourite company British Airways to the short-lived (and voluntary post) of 'rubbish czar' (that's not a czar who was rubbish, though most of them are, but a czar of rubbish).

There was a brief photo opportunity of Richard in Green Park trying to spear a pelican with one of those sharp sticks, and that was it.

But the whole farrago put Virgin Atlantic on the map.

The Virgin brand has been stretched beyond the capacity of elastic with cola, fragrance and wedding gear operations, all of which have failed to fly.

As to Virgin Trains, it has just lost the cross-country contract, which must worry even Branson. But more of this later.

Virgin Mobile did OK, testament to Branson's purchase with the younger generation.

So when anxious investors were putting together US-quoted but British cable operators Telewest and NTL it must have seemed a hugely clever idea to bring in Branson and his brand to sex it up a bit and offer a 'four-play' (very Branson) offer, of TV, fixed line phones, mobiles and internet.

Except nobody actually wants or needs these all together.

Anyway, the company, driven by Branson presumably, immediately fell out with big rival Sky, which provided a lot of its services.

And Branson immediately went the BA route: take the so and so's to court.

The Government did its bit, referring Sky's share raid on ITV to the Competition Commission, because it's clearly a way of stopping another Branson scheme, merging Virgin Media with ITV.

And Virgin is apparently taking Sky to court over the price it wants to charge for Sky One, Sky News and Sky Sports Extra. But as Sky makes the programmes, presumably m'learned friends will rule it can charge what it likes.

So it looks as though Branson's political skills have deserted him rather.

The Government may be willing to send a sighting shot across the Murdochs' bows (a reminder to Rupert that he ought to support big bad Gordon), but it's hard to see what else they will do.

It's hardly their job to back one lot of American investors against another lot of American investors.

And by taking away Virgin Train's cross-country contract, leaving it with just the (admittedly big) West Coast mainline, it's found another way to remind Branson that he's no longer their favourite bunny.

Branson isn't really a detail man and what he forgot is that politicians and hacks travel en masse up to the north-west from time to time to go to party conferences.

And they don't take very kindly to Virgin Trains delays and cancellations (and prices).

So the most political entrepreneur de nos jours might be wondering if he's losing the knack.

Virgin Media might well be put out of its misery by a private equity takeover sometime soon.

In which case the Branson wallet will be topped up, but his long-term desire to be a big media owner will be toast.

Time to sell up and regroup?

Politics of media is a regular series of opinion pieces for Brand Republic about the way media shapes politics and vice-versa. Stephen Foster is a partner at The Editorial Partnership and can be contacted at:

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