Feature

Media Headliner: Would the real Stephen Burch please stand up

The Virgin Media chief, Stephen Burch, has been forced into the limelight as the battle with Sky continues.

Stephen Burch, the man in the red corner in the ongoing Virgin versus BSkyB bout, is no stranger to controversy. Take, for instance, the kerfuffle that broke in Washington DC weeks after he'd (rather conveniently, as it turned out) crossed the Atlantic to join Virgin Media as the chief executive in January 2006.

Washington was previously at the heart of Burch's fiefdom as the president of Comcast's Atlantic division; he was accused by Democrats of attempting to curry favour in the corridors of power by handing out jobs or consultancy contracts to government officials and their relatives.

The lucky recipients of such largesse were known as Friends of Burch - or, rather pithily, yet provocatively, FOBs. The Washington Post, to take one example, focused on the presence on the Comcast payroll of Kendel Ehrlich, the wife of Robert Ehrlich Jr, the former Republican member of the House of Representatives' telecommunications committee.

Watergate this certainly wasn't - and no-one was accused of actually breaking any laws - but Burch must have been relieved that he was 3,600 or so miles away when the story broke, even if he did manage to swat away impertinent reporters with the greatest of ease.

He is, after all, a tough cookie - at 57, he is the veteran not only of a cutthroat US cable industry, but also of the Vietnam War. So going a few rounds with the fresh-faced Sky chief executive, James Mur-doch, must, in theory at least, have seemed to be something of a breeze. Strangely though, in some senses Burch has proved rather lightweight as the Sky row has unfolded.

He has, not to put too fine a point upon it, a bit of a profile problem - and there's a growing feeling that it's not helping Virgin to stay ahead in a public relations battle it was expected to win. Last week's skirmish was, some say, a case in point.

It was, of course, part of Virgin's ongoing dispute with BSkyB over the price Sky has been demanding for the inclusion of its basic channels on Virgin's cable platform. When the two sides failed to reach an agreement, the channels were pulled at midnight on 28 February, prompting Virgin to issue a High Court writ. But, while lawyers began wading through submissions from both parties, it was assumed the two companies would see sense and settle this quietly with honours even.

This theory was given further credence in mid-May when Burch told reporters he was open to talks, and that he'd take a phone call from James Murdoch "in a heartbeat". This was consistent with the market's easily-arrived-at perception of Virgin as the "good guys" - after all, wasn't Richard Branson, the ultimate guardian of the Virgin uber-brand, a celebrated champion of the underdog against the dirty tricks of bullying corporations? He's the man, after all, who took on big, bad British Airways and, despite the odds, actually won.

Last week, Sky bit back by releasing details of a new offer made in a letter written by James Murdoch to Burch, also revealing this overture had been rebuffed. In turn, Virgin's spin doctors were furious at this, arguing that it was underhanded to publish private correspondence.

There are, of course, few things less edifying in the media world than a spin doctor accusing the other side of spinning - and in the end, points-scoring in the public relations world arguably counts for little; but Sky probably grabbed the headlines it sought, with Murdoch, for a couple of days at least, being portrayed as the peacemaker.

And, arguably more importantly, it revealed the comparative awkwardness of Burch's situation. Since arriving at Virgin Media, he's seemed happy to let Branson continue to be the company's public figurehead - this despite the fact Burch is clearly the boss and Branson, although a shareholder, has no executive position whatsoever within the company.

It's clearly pragmatic to make the most of the Branson halo effect, which can open regulatory doors and provide a massive boost to consumer marketing credibility. But Murdoch's manoeuvre last week puts Burch, and not Branson, into the spotlight and the reaction in the media industry has been to ask, perhaps for the first time: Who the hell is Steve Burch anyway?

Perhaps more importantly, people are starting to wonder where he's likely to take this whole Sky dispute. To have survived for so long (26 years) at Comcast shows he's no pussy cat, but how cussed is he? And is he an astute operator in an arena where politics and big business meet?

Observers of the FOBs episode might suggest an answer to that; but these are not questions that his PR advisors feel inclined to help you with. Personalities, they argue, are irrelevant. What matters here, they say, is that Virgin Media is wholly in the right, its case is wholly vindicated under European law and, while it's true that Sky might have made an improvement on its first derisory offer, it is still a derisory offer.

Which seems to suggest we're likely to see a continued impasse. Clearly, Burch is an accomplished manager when it comes to service delivery. At Comcast, for instance, he played a lead role in the acquisition and integration of the AT&T broadband internet businesses. He's said to be phenomenally good at cutting through flannel and prevarication at middle management level - weaknesses that have contributed to the UK cable industry's woeful reputation down the years.

Now, however, he might have to get used to being judged by different criteria. And who knows - perhaps he may yet emerge as a colourful character. After all, he's starting to show alarming touches of whimsical British eccentricity. For instance, he's been seen driving a Morris 1000 Traveller - that's the quaint little 60s estate car with the exterior wood frame and the doll's house double tailgate doors.

And in a newspaper interview a couple of months back, he revealed that one of his heroes from history is Thomas More, the man who came up with the word "utopia" to describe an arrangement that is ideal yet imaginary. He's also the man who took the moral high ground in opposing Henry VIII and, intransigent to the end, died for his cause. That's the frustrating thing about history, though. There are lessons to be learned - but we're damned if we know what they are.

Topics