Many MSM commentators and some bloggers are asking the question ‘ “what exactly was Richard Branson doing on Gordon Brown’s China trip?” Man In A Shed, for example, taking the lead from Brown’s denials that he is going to offer Branson a ‘sweeter-than-he-should’ deal to take over Northern Rock, strongly suspects that the opposite might be true. He offered his thoughts, fisking the Press Association report as follows –
Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson said he believed he had a “winnable package” to see his bid for the ailing Northern Rock bank succeed.
Sir Richard, speaking in Shanghai where he is accompanying Prime Minister Gordon Brown as part of Britain’s delegation, said some Chinese money could be involved in his package –
right there’s a surprise-
but stressed it was essentially “British-backed”
like British Jobs for British workers perhaps ?
and under his deal the bank would be “very much a British bank”.
You can just feel the New Labourness oozing out of that statement
Asked if he had had any talks with Mr Brown about a possible deal, Sir Richard said: “We haven’t had any detailed discussions with the Prime Minister.
detailed! – the old Blair trick of redefining the question before you answer it – aka to everyone else known as not answering the question.
If Branson’s taking part in the trip is only about Northern Rock, then Brown could and should be criticised for playing on the Branson-favouratistic side. Surely Brown should be holding at least three bidders at bay, making them all compete in offering the British taxpayer the cheapest and best option for getting them off the Norther Rock hook.
I’m not convinced, though that there is enough justification in the Norther Rock situation alone, for this unlikely growing alliance between Brown and Branson. There might be more to this than yet meets the eye.
Brown would not want to be criticised again over the Northern Rock for favouratism, so what other advantages might there be for him in favouring Richard Branson, and allowing him such significant and public access at this moment in Brown’s relatively troubled time as Prime Minister?
You could be forgiven for wondering if this had anything to do with meeting another of Brown’s current objectives – that is keeping Rupert Murdoch pinned down, and, for example, preventing him from carrying on with The Sun’s campaign against the EU Constitution.
Brown was shocked in September when Cameron was given top billing in The Sun, declaring his cast iron guarantee on September 26th that even if the Constitution was ratified, a Conservative government would be holding a retrospective referendum on Britain’s relationship with Europe. The Sun placed itself as a campaign to stop The Constitution, and ensure the promised referendum was held.
Brown obviously wanted Murdoch’s open rebellion, and his (shocking) campaign in The Sun to stop the EU Constitution brought to an end.
Coincidentally, shortly after this, Rupert Murdoch was informed by the Regulator that his shareholdings in ITV were no longer considered legal – the same shareholdings which the same regulator had in 2005 declared as legal.
The shock was now being felt in the Murdoch camp.
As expected, since the Regulator dropped this bombshell on Murdoch, there has been a noticeable change in his coverage of the EU Constitution and Gordon Brown’s Prime Ministership, with more favourable interpetation being put out. The new pro-Brown biassed slant was immediately noticed by ‘ senior Conservatives’ according to Conservativehome HERE, and they have expressed their disapproval accordingly.
See my post recording the change in Murdoch’s stance on 1.12.2007 titled Murdoch Tries The Soft Soap.
Murdoch faces the possibility of being made to sell his ITV shares into a suppressed market losing around GBP 200 million, and even more crucially losing the voting rights, which he used to block Virgin Media’s attempt to break into his near monopoly of British digital broadcasting. The final decision as to what happens to Murdoch’s shares will be taken by the John Hutton, The Business Secretary, (without of course any influence being exerted by Gordon Brown).
The threat of losing his ITV shareholding position is clearly worrying Murdoch. One can only imagine therefore, how much more worried Murdoch must now be feeling, to see Branson, the theatened competitor to his TV empire, now sitting in pole position, publicly cuddling up to Gordon Brown. Gordon Brown and Richard Branson for that matter would clearly be mindful of this, even though they apparently are only talking about the Northern Rock.
Murdoch and Blair were so strongly aligned that Murdoch never once strayed from a position of loyalty to Blair throughout the ten long years of his Prime Ministership. He not only kept all his media privileges as a result of this relationship, despite having a monopoly for broadcasting Premier League football worldwide (Murdoch’s Crown Jewels which could also be threatened by new interpretation of the rules). He accumulated yet more of them, landing Test Cricket TV broadcasting rights as one of his final Blair pay-offs. Blair was, interestingly offered a job as a Director of News International even while still Prime Minister.
With Murdoch and Blair held each other in such a tight embrace, Branson never got a look-in, despite several attempts to get privileged contracts as with the Lottery, Broadcasting and other areas. He only picked up the crumbs.
But now with Murdoch having made the tactical error of openly standing up against the EU and Gordon Brown, Branson must surely see his chance to at last sweep in as favoured media Prince, and start to engineer himself into some lucrative deals, shoring up Gordon Brown’s weakened position in the process. At the very least, Brown knows that being seen around town with Branson will be putting enormous pressure on Murdoch, as Branson is his long-running arch enemy. He will no doubt, in these circumstances be even more likely to continue putting out news and comment favourable to Gordon and the EU.
It seems eminently likely that if Brown and Branson are getting ‘closer’, based on his past form and interest in breaking into TV, Branson will, if he hasn’t already done so, propose that he has a second attempt at launching digital TV and media services via cable, if perchance Murdoch would happen to lose his blocking shares in ITV – or any other TV scheme that might come along.
From the consumers point of view, the cable idea must surely be a good thing, and would be a popular move. The plan Branson had was not to broadcast via satellite but to use the Cable network built around Britain at enormous cost by NTL (now called Virgin Media) to carry a whole plethora of new media services, like video on demand, internet telephony and many others, a well as TV, and some newer services no doubt not yet fully conceived of.
This must surely still be Branson’s dream. He is unlikely to have forgotten his ideas of only a year or two ago.
But if this is to happen, what kind of deal will Branson be making with Brown on a more ‘political’ front?
Brown would hardly be willing to countenance Branson as a powerful figure in broadcast media without some kind of guarantees as to the material he would be putting out. Brown would not be wanting a Channel favourable to David Cameron and EU-scepticism. Maybe there is some kind of tie-up being discussed whereby Branson’s news content would be controlled from elsewhere and not by Richard Branson directly, where Brown is offered a right of censorship…a bit like the deal Murdoch had with Blair, which BRanson so bitterly criticised.
That said Brown’s image is always in need of a little boost here and there. He is such a dull speaker. As a personality. Branson could offer Brown a little muscularity, a chance to absorb some starlight by association with Britain’s greatest individual entrepreneur.
It is possible that Blair found Branson an irritant, a competitor for limelight while Brown on the other hand, feels the need to borrow some. Branson could make few things happen for Brown, and Brown could line himself up to try to take much of the credit, as he is wont to do.
Branson is unlikely to get a better moment to advance his cause than now, while Brown feels vulnerable. Murdoch’s loss could well ending up being his gain.
UPDATE – How wrong I was!. See Anatole Kaletsky’s fury at Brown’s pathetic handling of Northern Rock, and handing GBP 55 billion to Ricahrd Branson and his backers. To my mind this makes it even more likely that we will be seeing a Richard Branson/Gordon Brown media deal designed to hurt Rupert Murdoch, and that Branson will be timid in criticising Gordon Brown with any media he acquires.