Virgin Atlantic: Low-down and libellous

Sir Richard Branson emerged victorious in his battle with BA. Martyn Gregory recalls the long-running 'dirty tricks' campaign.

"You can't run this ad until you have proof," Richard Branson's lawyers told him at the start of the 90s when he showed them a forthright Woollams Moira Gaskin O'Malley ad, highlighting BA's attempts to steal Virgin Atlantic passengers.

Shot in grainy black and white, the footage appeared to be secretly shot film of a "switch-seller" pestering a passenger as he gets out of a Virgin limousine. Shrugging off the approaches, the annoyed passenger eventually strides towards Virgin Atlantic's check-in as a sanctimonious voiceover informed viewers that the ad had been made "in the interests of civil aviation".

Branson appeared to be the only person to believe that BA was running a "dirty tricks" campaign against his airline, and that his tiny, six-aeroplane fleet could follow Laker Airways and Air Europe into oblivion as a result. Reluctantly, Branson accepted the legal advice, but could he find proof of his claims against the self-styled "world's favourite airline"?

The 90s ended with a series of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R TV ads which sought to stir memories among business travellers of what Sir Richard Branson believes became the most important victory of his business career - the 1993 apology from British Airways in the High Court and record libel damages of £610,000 for its "dirty tricks" against the then minuscule Virgin Atlantic.

A 1999 TV campaign featured Steve Buscemi's gormless gumshoe, Mr A, obtaining Virgin's secrets for a rival airline's sinister Mr B, played by Steven Berkoff, who describes the airline's expanded Upper Class limousine service as being a "dirty trick" - the sole use of the phrase in this campaign.

If a younger generation of air travellers was bemused, RKCR/Y&R was confident that potential Upper Class business travellers would remember BA's attempts to snuff out its tiny rival although, of course, BA was never mentioned by name. A 2002 RKCR/Y&R TV and poster campaign celebrated "18 years of giving BA the wobbles" with images of 18 wobbly, Virgin red jellies. As Virgin Atlantic celebrates its 20th anniversary, Sir Richard Branson knows his libel victory gave BA it's biggest ever wobble more than half Virgin Atlantic's lifetime ago.

I first met Branson in January 1992 to propose making a This Week film for ITV when his "dirty tricks" allegations were dismissed out of hand by BA, and much of the press. Branson had become convinced that BA was not only stealing his passengers but that his unusually negative press could be traced to BA. He also regaled me with the extraordinary allegation that Virgin was being targeted by private detectives working for BA.

BA responded with an incredulous "Puh-lease!", arguing that this was fantasy from a man even more celebrated at that time for his abilities as a self-publicist than for his renowned business acumen.

Exactly a year after our meeting, Branson walked out of the High Court in London with his record libel damages - £500,00 for Branson & £110,000 for Virgin Atlantic. BA also apologised "unreservedly" to Branson for spreading "disreputable" rumours about him and his airline and a series of "unacceptable business practices" aka dirty tricks. (Branson distributed his personal damages in equal parts among all Virgin Atlantic's staff which became known as the "BA bonus"; the airline's winnings went into a "BA fighting fund").

After my This Week film had revealed that some of Branson's "dirty tricks" claims were accurate, BA unwisely used its in-house journal to pour libellous vitriol on the programme, Virgin Atlantic and Branson himself. Branson's allegations in my film were described in BA News as "Unfounded ... scurrilous"; it claimed he was merely "puffing a balloon of self-publicity".

In the wake of the first Gulf War, the press anticipated the "mother of all libel battles" in court when Branson issued proceedings against BA over the BA News article, but Virgin's victory was secured in the pre-trial "discovery" process. BA documents and witnesses revealed that a secret BA unit at Gatwick had been spying on Branson's operation, and that BA had, indeed, been trying to "switch-sell" Virgin passengers around the world. BA also admitted it had planted "hostile and discreditable stories about Virgin and Richard Branson", and that it had destroyed key documents about its anti-Virgin campaign. If the case had gone to trial, Virgin's QC, the late George Carman, had planned a dramatic opening address: "The 'world's favourite airline' has a favourite occupation ... shredding documents that are liable to be misconstrued."

Lord King's defence was torpedoed by an expensive and bungled BA private detective operation against Branson, code-named "Covent Garden". While BA consistently underestimated the former hippy - mocking him as "the grinning pullover", and ridiculing him as being "too old to rock 'n' roll and too young to fly" - Branson relished his role as Virgin's David taking on BA's Goliath.

Gratifyingly, David himself played a key role in exposing Goliath's spooks.

Branson met secretly with a Covent Garden operative who had insisted that he would only reveal the details to Branson personally on condition of complete anonymity. Branson secretly recorded the meeting with a bug hidden inside his trousers, and he was handed a detailed log of Covent Garden's activities and personnel. "I really wanted to nail the bastards," Branson recalls, "and exposing Covent Garden made that possible".

Before the libel victory, Branson had ensured Virgin Atlantic's survival by making the "hardest decision" of his business life. He sold Virgin Music to EMI for £560 million, "a good way of flicking a V-sign at Lord King, and showing BA their silly games were not going to work". This posture was reinforced by the libel victory and it endures into the 21st century as folk memory of BA's "dirty tricks" campaign fades and RKCR seeks to expand Virgin Atlantic's position. The agency's campaigns have incorporated Branson-esque school boy humour - "BA can't get it up" a Virgin airship giggled when BA's London Eye languished horizontally to miss its launch date - suffused with post "dirty tricks" confidence; "BA's Millennium Bug* *Virgin Atlantic" heralded the new century. Jim Kelly, RKCR/ Y&R's founder and chief executive says that Dirty Tricks: British Airways' secret war against Virgin Atlantic became required reading for those working on the Virgin account. The book recounts the defining moments in the history of an airline now 49 per cent owned by Singapore Airlines. Eleven-and-half years after its "dirty tricks" victory, Virgin Atlantic now flies 22 routes with its fleet of 29 aeroplanes. Sir Richard believes his "dirty tricks" victory secured the future of the first and only British long haul airline to successfully compete with BA.

- Martyn Gregory is the author of Dirty Tricks: British Airways'secret war against Virgin Atlantic.

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