Mr Nice Guy’s lottery win is no measure of public confidence

It was an occasionally entertaining, sometimes illuminating, frequently tedious three weeks endured by a dwindling band of enthusiasts in front of Mr Justice Morland at Court 13 in the Strand.

When the jury went out on Monday to consider their verdict in the Richard Branson-Guy Snowden libel trial, they held in their hands not just the reputations of two leading businessmen, but also the fortunes of two of Britain’s best-known brands.

The case had its origins in a lunch between the two men – and a third, John Jackson, now chief executive of Sketchley and at the time running Branson’s bid for the National Lottery – in September 1993. More than two years later, in December 1995, Branson went on the BBC’s Panorama to allege that towards the end of the lunch Snowden, the founder and chief executive of the US lottery company G-Tech, had tried to bribe him to withdraw from bidding for the lottery.

G-Tech immediately de-nounced the allegation as untrue and defamatory. Branson sued for libel. Snowden countersued. And two years later, the parties ended up in the High Court.

The case revolved around what was actually said at the lunch, and on the interpretation put on it. In his favour, Branson had not only his own testimony but that of John Jackson, who was equally convinced they’d just been offered a bribe, and the fact that Branson had popped out to the loo during the lunch itself to scribble a note of what had been said.

On the other side, Snowden denied using the words Branson had written down, or that they meant what he’d taken them to mean. The only part of the conversation on which they agreed was a phrase Branson had used, observing that he was quite successful and only needed one breakfast, lunch and dinner a day. Snowden had thought it an “off-the-wall remark” and wondered if it hadn’t been a sly dig at his considerable size.

The case was not a straightforward conflict of evidence over what was said and what was meant. Branson had made a number of other claims. He said the PR man Sir Tim Bell had rung on behalf of Snowden, claimed Bell suggested the American may have said “something he might regret” at the lunch. Branson also said he’d raised the matter of the alleged bribe with the lottery regulator, Peter Davis.

But in the witness box Sir Tim said he hadn’t used the phrase Branson claimed, and Davis said he’d no recollection of any mention of a bribe. What’s more, there was the tricky question of Snowden’s motive. Branson claimed Snowden had been terrified that a rival bid for the lottery, which promised to give all the profits to charity, might deprive him of the “jewel in the crown” of the career he’d pursued since founding G-Tech 22 years ago (it’s now the biggest lottery company in the world, operating 80 state and national lotteries).

Snowden, on the other hand, argued it would have been madness to offer a bribe to a man he’d never met, in front of a witness, and quite unnecessarily: G-Tech had not only its own expertise in running the technical side of lotteries, but a powerful consortium of British companies, including Cadbury-Schweppes, Racal, De la Rue and ICL. And why, Snowden asked, if Branson had been so certain he’d been offered a bribe, had he waited two years to go public?

The answer to the latter question seems to be that it was only when Panorama came to him and presented a dossier of allegations about the way G-Tech wins lottery contracts in the US – allegations G-Tech has always denied – that he felt emboldened to make his claim.

The jury weren’t given any detail of those American allegations. But towards the end of the case they were told in evidence by Peter Davis that he’d been so concerned about G-Tech’s reputation in the US that he’d called in the then chairman of Camelot, Sir Ron Dearing, to tell him he and Camelot’s other shareholders should, in effect, keep an eye on G-Tech.

In the event, the jury chose to believe Branson’s version of events – as the Snowden camp had always feared. Faced with a choice between a well-known Brit with a Mr Nice Guy image, or an overweight American bulldozer-driver’s son, no amount of exhortation to try the case “on a level playing field” was likely to succeed.

Had Branson lost, the consequences for the Virgin might have been significant: after all, Branson pretty well is Virgin. It would not have looked good if he’d appeared the sort of chap who makes up damaging allegations against former business rivals.

As it is, it’s another brand, the National Lottery, which has to take the rap. In the immediate aftermath of the case there were excitable suggestions that public confidence in Camelot and in the lottery may have been damaged. In certain quarters that may be true. But it’s far from clear whether the public at large has lost confidence.

Although the row over “fat cat” bonuses paid to Camelot directors caused huge public uproar, there was no real indication that it hit lottery sales. Branson is convinced that a not-for-profit lottery would be preferable, and maintains the public would buy more tickets.

The Government, when in opposition agreed. But Labour’s manifesto commitment to a non-profit lottery has been dropped in the Lottery Bill currently before Parliament – and Britain’s lottery remains the biggest and most successful in the world, fat cat directors or not.

Camelot may find itself tainted by association with Snowden. But there’s no evidence the British public will buy fewer lottery tickets as a result.

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