Sometimes, it is the silences that are most eloquent, the unasked questions that provide the most interesting answers.
Richard Branson was interviewed by Ryan Tubridy on RTÉ radio last week for nearly half an hour. The news headlines that preceded the show featured the latest revelations about Harvey Weinstein's career of sexual harassment. Even more pertinently, Tubridy had been talking about Monica Lewinsky's anti-bullying campaign while Branson was waiting to go live. He urged all parents to show their kids a video Lewinsky has made on the subject.
Before he was asked any questions, Branson jumped in on this topic: “I couldn’t agree more with what you just said.” Tubridy: “You know the way it is Richard, in the workplace or in the schoolyard, bullying is a serious problem. . . You know the score.” Branson: “I just think it’s one of the cruellest things you can imagine. You just need every schoolkid, every person to just stand up and stamp it out, and just think ‘it could be me that’s being bullied’ and just think how you would feel if you were being treated in that way.”
And Tubridy's next question was: "So do you regret the way you've made such a public point of grabbing beautiful young women, lifting them off their feet and, in some cases turning them upside down?" This is Branson's signature move. He is not shy about it – on the contrary it is part of his personal brand. He did it to Ivana Trump: an admiring profile of him on CNN in 1997 reports that "he once poured ice cubes down Ivana Trump's dress, then turned her upside down to shake them out". He did it to Pamela Anderson. He did it to Kate Moss. He did it to Jennifer Mayani and to Maddy Ford. Launching Virgin Media's cable TV service in Dublin in October 2015, he picked up Sinead Kennedy who was hosting the launch, clutched her in his arms like King Kong with Fay Wray and made as if to kiss her.
This is not Harvey Weinstein-style behaviour – it is open and public and there is no suggestion that Branson was seeking to bully these women in any way. But it does very deliberately create a set of images for public consumption, images of beautiful young women in a working environment being bodily manhandled by a man who, in most of these shots, is employing them to promote his businesses. The pictures are all over the internet – anyone innocently googling Richard Branson because she is interested in business developments will not be able to avoid them. Since both Tubridy and Branson had just urged listeners to watch Lewinsky’s video, the subject was surely unavoidable.
Except Tubridy completely avoided it. Bizarrely, he asked Branson instead about another of his "fun" habits – snipping off men's ties with a scissors and keeping the ties as souvenirs. This is indeed interesting and Dr Freud might have a thing or two to say about a dominant man symbolically castrating his male rivals. But in the context, symbolic shenanigans are rather less pertinent than the literal man-handling of pretty young women.
It is, perhaps, possible to guess what Branson might have said had he been asked. That this is all great fun for everyone involved. That there’s no harm in it. That he abhors every kind of harassment and deeply respects women. I’m sure he feels these things very sincerely. But some gentle follow-up questions would have made for riveting radio. Do you always ask for explicit consent before you do it? Have you thought, as you yourself have just said, “how you would feel if you were being treated in that way”? Do you think it’s good for kids who deeply admire you for your great achievements to see all of these images online? If it’s so much fun, why is it only young, pretty women you do it to? Would you do to Donald Trump what you did to Ivana? Would you do it to Harvey Weinstein?
Insidiousness of fun
But no. It seems that none of these questions occurred to Ryan Tubridy, just as none of them can have occurred to Richard Branson. Branson is deeply intelligent, highly charming and immensely popular, someone millions of men (and presumably women) would like to be. He wouldn't do the man-handling thing if he thought for one second that there was anything wrong with it. And Tubridy, who is utterly decent and genuinely nice, clearly doesn't think it's even worth discussing, even when Weinstein and Monica Lewinsky have just been on his lips.
And this silence is eloquent. It speaks of something that surrounds the whole question of how women are treated in working environments: the insidiousness of fun. But what’s wrong with a bit of fun? Women won’t be equal until men ask: whose idea of fun is this?