Lenny Lottery, libel and the fat cats

Not just a game, but a media event on an enormous scale. Jemimah Baileyrevisits five years of news,

Nowhere has the nation's obsession with the National Lottery in the past five years been reflected more clearly than in the tabloid press. For three months before and after the launch in November 1994, Lottery stories knocked the royal family out of the tabloids, something that only otherwise happens during a war. In the perpetual battle for readers fought between the Sun and the Mirror, the Lottery has been a powerful weapon.

The Lottery has also been good for business as far as the wider newspaper industry is concerned. While the broadsheets were slower to pick up on the impact that the Lottery would have on the nation's psyche, fat-cat and bribery allegations gave them opportunities to take the moral high ground, and the various ethical, political and financial issues have made good copy. The tabloids have been left to concentrate on the winners themselves. If they turned out to be "lotto-love rats" or "spend, spend, spend" winners, all the better.

Even Camelot underestimated the heights that Lottery fever would reach. In the first year its communications director David Rigg was interviewed more times than the then prime minister John Major, and the press office was taking more than 1,000 calls a week.

The Sun's editor at the time, Stuart Higgins, is credited with being the first to see the potential marketing and promotional opportunities of the new national game. He persuaded one reporter to change his name to "Lenny Lottery" and devote himself entirely to following the Lottery. The battle to be the "voice" of the Lottery reached farcical levels in May 1997 when Lenny Lottery defected to the Mirror. The Sun quickly nominated another reporter to become "Sir Lenny Lottery" and took the Mirror to court, demanding that it return the specially made white suit with red lottery balls on, worn by the original Lenny. After a fight that reached the High Court and dominated the tabloid headlines for a week, the suit was returned to the Sun.

Camelot reaped the benefits of the initial blanket coverage, with public awareness of the Lottery standing at 99 per cent before any advertising had hit the screens. But the honeymoon looked to be over as early as December 1994, when the first rollover jackpot was won by a single player: £17.8 million.

The winner decided he wanted to preserve his anonymity, and the tabloids went nuts. From the outset the pressure to be the first to carry a story from Lottery winners had led to offers of £5,000 for readers who phoned in with the identity of a winner. Now the price doubled to £10,000. In an attempt to assuage the hunger for details, Camelot released a limited amount of information about the winner: he was a factory worker with three children who lived in the north of England. It was as much as the press needed. Within days more than 30 journalists and photographers descended on Blackburn and discovered the winner's identity. It was the cue for rest of the media to pile in on the ethics of privacy and whether prizes should be capped.

The Sun's management had by now decided there was nothing to stop it capitalising on Lottery madness. The newspaper took Rupert Murdoch's chequebook shopping and started buying up 50,000 Lottery tickets every week, printing 100 slips for each ticket and giving them away on Saturdays. The Mirror followed with a similar scheme, and both newspaper-run syndicates have hit the jackpot once, winning several million pounds.

The first fat-cat row came in June 1995 when Camelot's first financial results were published and it became clear that the company was making £1 million a week in profits. But the outpouring of condemnation was nothing compared to the furore in May 1997, when Camelot's 1996 financial results were leaked in the trade magazine Marketing Week. "The man with the 90 per cent pay rise" ran the outraged headline in the Daily Mail, as the media piled scorn on the six board directors benefiting from the operator's bonuses.

The bonus schemes had always been public knowledge, but the leak came at a dramatically bad moment for Camelot, in the month of the election of a new Labour government which had a clear manifesto commitment to a non-profit making Lottery. (Many are now accusing Labour of fudging this commitment, in handing over to the Lottery Commission the decision about who will win the next licence.) Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, called in Camelot's directors for a dressing-down; a deal was struck in which they were to donate some of their bonuses to charities of their choice.

For a while Camelot followed a policy of keeping its head well down below the parapet. But the libel case between Guy Snowdon, a director from one of Camelot's founding companies GTech, and Richard Branson, the Virgin boss and a failed Lottery licence applicant, brought it into the firing line again. Branson alleged that Snowdon had tried to bribe him during the first licence round, and when Snowdon denied it, Branson took him to court. Snowdon countersued and lost. Images of the large, brash American marching into court to challenge the people's champion were plastered across front pages and television screens. The cartoonists had a field day.

The fallout from this scandal led to the resignation of Peter Davis, the Lottery regulator, who was pilloried for accepting free flights from GTech when travelling in the US. Lottery regulation was taken out of the hands of an individual and made the responsibility of a new body, the Lottery Commission.

What the fat-cat debacle and GTech trial illustrated all too clearly was that while the nation had fallen in love with the Lottery, it was far from enamoured with Camelot. The persistent criticism is that the Lottery operator must be either arrogant or naive in refusing to understand why so many people are disgusted that it should make so much money.

Yet the National Lottery was created under a Tory government, at a time when profit was the central motivation. That climate is changing, but Camelot seems to be struggling to catch up and at times has failed to understand that as a national lottery, the public feels it has a stake in it.

Paradoxically the Lottery set out to establish itself as a national institution and Camelot regarded it as crucial that the draw was broadcast on the BBC. This relationship has provoked controversy, not least because the BBC pays Camelot £500,000 a year for the privilege of hosting the Lottery show. The broadcaster's defence is that the scale of the Lottery makes it newsworthy, and it is therefore performing a public service; besides which, half of the fee goes to good causes.

The accusations that the BBC was running little more than an advertisement for Camelot came to a head when it launched the National Lottery Big Ticket Show in March 1998. Viewers had to buy a £2 scratchcard to get on to the show and compete for the £100,000 prize. Despite the care taken by the BBC to ensure that its presenters were not pictured with the scratchcards and the BBC name was not used on promotional material, there was uproar. Sir Christopher Bland, the BBC's chairman, had to reassure Chris Smith that the corporation really was working within its charter.

The show was a disaster. In yet another precaution, the BBC had not used Camelot's name for the game, "TV Dreams", but instead its own, "Big Ticket". Viewers and players were confused, and the show bombed.

Just over a year ago, and not long after the Big Ticket incident, the Sun killed off Sir Lenny Lottery, and the Mirror quietly retired its own Lenny. While Camelot-baiting remains a favourite sport among journalists, if you happen to be lucky enough to hit the jackpot next week, don't bother to tick the box marked "publicity, please". You'll probably qualify for no more than a small paragraph buried on the inside pages of our favourite tabloids.

Jemimah Bailey is a freelance journalist and was media correspondent for the "Sunday Telegraph"