Branson's Lottery libel case takes off

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The Independent Online
Instead of preparing for his latest attempt to fly around the world in a balloon, Richard Branson will be spending part of next week in a witness box at Court 13 in the High Court, in his long-awaited libel case against Lottery boss Guy Snowden.

The courtroom clash, which opens on Monday, is the culmination of the Virgin boss's unsuccessful attempt to win the franchise for the British lottery. Mr Branson later publicly accused Mr Snowden, head of the US firm GTech which has a stake in successful bidders Camelot, of offering to bribe him to pull out of the race.

GTech and Mr Snowden denied the claim, made on television, and Mr Branson then sued for libel claiming he was accused of being a liar. Mr Snowden in turn has sued over the bribery claim. For some observers, the fact that Mr Snowden has not sued the television programme where the bribery allegations were made - Panorama - suggests that the affair is personal; it seems certain that neither man will be spared personal attacks during the bitterly-contested action before Mr Justice Morland.

Much of the case will centre on the exact interpretation of words Mr Branson claims his lottery rival Mr Snowden used over lunch at the former's home in Holland Park, London, in September 1993. Mr Branson alleges that Mr Snowden, an anglophile American, said to him: "In what way can I help you, Richard? I'm sure everybody needs something," which he says was the offer of a backhander.

The two contrary libel suits are being "consolidated" into one action, with Mr Branson the plaintiff, and Mr Snowden the defendant. Both have big-hitting barristers, George Carman QC for Mr Branson and Richard Ferguson QC for his opponent.

After giving evidence next week, Mr Branson will concentrate on his next balloon voyage. If the winds are right there is the intriguing prospect of the case ending with Mr Branson giving his reaction from 30,000 feet.