Tim Bell `sounded out' Branson

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The Independent Online
The High Court in London heard yesterday that publicist Sir Tim Bell tried to sound out Richard Branson following a lunch at which the Virgin boss claims a rival tried to bribe him.

Sir Tim rang Mr Branson and said that Guy Snowden, chairman of GTech, "may have said something he was going to regret" over lunch, the court was told. He sounded out Mr Branson and asked whether he was going to go public with what had been said at the lunch meeting.

Will Whitehorn, Mr Branson's corporate affairs director, said he was present when the Virgin chief took a call from Sir Tim just days after the meeting in September1993.

Because they thought the call was about another matter, Mr Branson and Mr Whitehorn listened to it on the telephone's loudspeaker. "I remember it very well, he is not a man who phones our organisation," said Mr Whitehorn.

Mr Whitehorn said Sir Tim, chairman of Lowe Bell Communications, said he had heard from Mr Snowden that his lunch with Mr Branson - to discuss the latter's plan to bid to run the National Lottery on a non-profit-making basis - did not go very well and he may have said something he was going to regret.

Mr Branson has claimed that at the lunch Mr Snowden, 52, now a director of National Lottery operator Camelot, tried to bribe him to drop his bid.

Mr Branson, 47, is suing Mr Snowden, GTech and company spokesman Robert Rendine for libel after they dismissed his allegation as false. In turn, Mr Branson is being sued over the bribery allegation, which he made on a BBC Panorama programme.

Mr Whitehorn said he had also been present after the lunch when Mr Branson told him: "`You won't believe this, this horrible man has just tried to bribe me'," Mr Whitehorn said.