LEADER: Branson braces for war with Murdoch

Sir Richard Branson, a hugely successful man entering his late fifties, must be feeling a fresh lease of life.

After years of overseeing steady but unexciting Virgin spin-offs; a troublesome train operation; and a largely stagnant global airline market; his new toy, Virgin Media, finds itself at the beating heart of the populist news agenda.

Despite the fact that it was actually formed from the long-established Virgin Mobile and the much-maligned cable firm NTL, Virgin Media is fast becoming a classic Bransonite operation, with PR in its soul. It is therefore no surprise that Branson is now bolstering the firm's comms personnel.

Virgin Media is already involved in hand-to-hand combat on many fronts. Not only does it have the strategic challenge of convincing consumers that we need to buy TV, broadband and telephony from the same supplier, but it has become embroiled in a vicious PR war with Sky. What started off as a media relations battle over pricing and content has broadened into a lobbying issue over BSkyB's alleged ‘restrictive practices'.

And if that wasn't enough, Virgin Media is rumoured to be in the market for broadband provider Pipex and has just signed up to sponsor the next Big Brother.

The latter is a partnership again likely to draw heavily on the comms resource. Lest we forget, previous sponsor Carphone Warehouse pulled out during the Shilpa Shetty media row, the rumour being that boss Charles Dunstone was advised to do so by his own PR guru Matthew Freud. We can only imagine how the sparks will fly as the notoriously controversial show aligns with the Branson empire.

Unlike his train operation, Virgin Media can position itself as the classic ‘edgy' challenger brand, up against the ‘evil' News Corporation.

Branson is happy and re-energised. And so are we journalists. But Mr Murdoch, and maybe Mr Freud, may prove less of a pushover.
danny.rogers@haymarket.com

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