Magazine article The Spectator

Branson Doesn't Play Games of Chance with the Red Tops

Magazine article The Spectator

Branson Doesn't Play Games of Chance with the Red Tops

Article excerpt

Last Thursday in the High Court Mr Justice Richards said that the Lottery Commission's decision to rule out Camelot, and deal only with Sir Richard Branson, was `so conspicuously unfair' as to be `an abuse of power'. It is hard to think of a more damning judgment of the Commission, and its 'chair', Dame Helena Shovelton.

One would have expected newspapers to express reservations about the Lottery Commission's conduct, and possibly a little outrage, but their reaction was far from uniform. The Daily Mail threw a fit. The Independent described the Commission's decision to rule out Camelot as `incompetent' and called for Dame Helena to resign. In a slightly more muted leader, the Guardian suggested that she and her `fellow quangocrats must consider their position'. The Daily Express welcomed the judge's ruling, while the Daily Telegraph ran a short editorial conveying its general distaste for the National Lottery.

On the other side, the Times - almost unbelievably - had nothing to say about Mr Justice Richards's judgment, though on 24 August it had welcomed the Lottery Commission's exclusion of Camelot as 'responsible'. Its sister paper, the Sun, was also oddly silent, having played its customary role as Sir Richard Branson's cheerleader on 24 August. The Mirror ran a leader criticising the Lottery Commission for being 'silly' and restated its perennial enthusiasm for Sir Richard. `Let the Commission now get on with it. And tell Sir Richard Branson that his People's Lottery has won.'

We should not be altogether surprised by the reaction of the Times, Sun and Mirror. All three newspapers have a warm place in their hearts for Branson. As a broadsheet, the Times is the most circumspect, and occasionally allows some of its columnists to write about Sir Richard as though he were a normal human being: Patience Wheatcroft has questioned the decision to exclude Camelot, and on Monday William Rees-- Mogg wrote that Branson was not the sort of chap who should run a lottery. The Sun has few, if any, dissenting voices. It is consistently pro-Branson; indeed, its editor, David Yelland, is an old and close friend. The paper rarely misses an opportunity to puff the tycoon, and gave him an enormous boost when Virgin Mobile was launched in March. Many letters, almost invariably favourable, are carried about him. The Mirror is equally supportive - its editor, Piers Morgan, is also an admirer of Branson's -- and has rooted for the People's Lottery, and berated Camelot, for many years. It should go without saying that the Lottery is closer to the hearts of the readers of these two `red tops' than it would be to the readers of the Times. It matters a great deal to them.

There is no reason why newspapers should not be beastly about Camelot, which doubtless has many flaws. It is equally legitimate to favour the People's Lottery. For all I know, it may be the better bet. My only point is that the Mirror and the Sun, and to a lesser extent the Times, idolise Sir Richard Branson, and therefore do not object when his opponent, Camelot, is shoddily treated by the Lottery Commission. The Sunday Times is also a long-term admirer of Sir Richard's.

Last week saw the publication of Branson by Tom Bower, the outstanding investigative journalist of his generation. His picture of the tycoon is a very dark one - philanderer, ruthless and devious businessman. One of Bower's most disquieting claims is that Sir Richard is brilliant at manipulating journalists, some of whom are favoured with upgrades on Virgin flights, or are recipients of other largesse. …

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