4,000 moles in Blackburn, Lancashire?

With four clues from Camelot, it took the media hounds just three days to find the National Lottery winner. Cal McCrystal investigates

THE ATTEMPTS to invade the winner's privacy began last Monday at about 1pm, 37 hours after Britain knew that someone had won £17. 9m on the National Lottery. "A young man from London came into the shop," said the owner of a newsagent on Whalley Ol d Roadin Blackburn three days later. "He said he was a reporter just passing through, and wondered if I knew where the winner lived. At that point I didn't know."

There seemed no obvious reason why he should have known. It was not until later in the afternoon that Camelot, the lottery operator, issued a statement saying only that the winner was a factory-worker living in the north of England, had three children, and read the Sun and the People. Yet within the next 24 hours, the winner's name was known to newspapers and his house was surrounded; his biographical details were being bandied about and the Little Harwood section of Blackburnwas crawling with media people.

Across from the newsagent is Ash Street, which is dominated by two buildings: the old, partly-derelict Wellfield textile mill, and a new mosque of bright red brick where the winner, allegedly a devout Muslim, worshipped.

To reach the winner's house from the mosque, one only has to walk across a car park, squeeze through a hole in a wooden fence bordering a new Barratt housing estate of twisting roads, grassy lawns and ochre brick.

Other London journalists arrived the next day armed with the winner's address, but the trail had gone cold. "Five or six of them clustered around the mosque door on Tuesday, but we couldn't help them," said an Asian youth after morning prayer on Thursday- when the man's identity was as widely known in Little Harwood as it was to the press.

By Tuesday something between irritation and rage had built up among the people of Blackburn over attempts to unmask the £18m winner. "Why don't you f--- off and leave them alone," an Asian man shouted at the visiting throng. The Lancashire Evening Telegraph told its readers it would not reveal the winner's name - "because you told us not to. An overwhelming 83 per cent of people who contacted our phone-in said the family should remain anonymous, because that's the way they want it. The result of the poll emphasises the public outrage at the way Camelot and the national press have behaved."

How did they behave? On Sunday and much of Monday, most were barking up the wrong tree - in West Yorkshire - chasing a rumour that Ivy Jardine, 73, of Ravensthorpe, Dewsbury, had scooped "at least a six-figure sum" from the lottery, and could be the big winner. Ivy was believed to have gone to Portugal with her pensioner sister Rose Grogan. Then - perhaps as early as Sunday - a single phone call from Blackburn seems to have put the hunters on to the right scent.

Who made that call? Given that that two tabloids, the Mirror and the Sun, were offering £5,000 and £10,000 respectively to any reader who could lead them to the winner, motivation is not hard to find. But the winner's workmates believe it resulted from atrail of clues laid by Camelot. Several workers at at the factory where the winner worked are said to have known his identity on Sunday - within hours of his meeting that morning with Camelot representatives in a Blackburn hotel. By Monday morning, according to some employees, not only had most of the 200 workforce heard the name of the winner, but had also heard that he had offered to distribute £40,000 to each of them - a total of £8m. The offer is alleged to have been made via the management, but managers say the only call from their lucky employee was to say that he was ill and wouldn't be coming into work. Later, on Friday, they said: "No formal approaches were made to our firm."

The estate, where the lottery winner moved into his modest, £50,000 house in September, still has a number of empty homes for sale. A Barratt saleswoman has an office there, but no journalists approached her on Monday, she said. The office was closed on Tuesday and Wednesday, but her home number was posted outside. "I was deluged with calls on Tuesday - all wanting information about the winner, an extremely nice man by the way."

By then, journalists camped outside the winner's house, were taking pictures of a small conservatory at the back and an E-registered car parked at the side, and knocking on neighbours' doors. Who led them there? On Wednesday, after newspapers, notably the Sun, Mirror and Mail came close to identifying the man, Jack Straw, the Labour MP for Blackburn, accused Camelot of laying a trail to the door of the Asian factory worker, who is married with three sons. Camelot denies this. "The winner wanted to giveout more information, but we said no," a spokesperson said.

Camelot employs a staff of 450, including 250 at its Watford headquarters. On Friday, Louise White of Camelot's management emerged from a company meeting (which was preparing a report on the controversy for Oflot, the National Lottery regulator) to say: "Screening of employees is very thorough. All in key positions, including a lot of the operations people, have to fill in a Schedule 10 document, which is an Oflot requirement. Oflot has to inspect these documents. Security vetting for other people is a lot more than you'd have for a normal type of job. Apart from usual references, we check to see if they are on the electoral role; to see if they have a criminal conviction and a number of other things. Employees have to sign a confidentiality clause.''

How many employees would be privy to the identity of a winner who wished to remain anonymous? "It's purely on a need to know basis," she said. We're talking about possibly half-a-dozen people. Obviously somebody's got to take the winner's call, somebody'

s got to co-ordinate what we do with the winner, somebody's got to pay them a cheque, somebody's got to do a security check on them. We may involve a director to hand over the cheque."

Perhaps one of these people was recognised entering or leaving the winner's house on Monday evening? Alistair Buchan, for example, a former Mirror journalist currently employed by Camelot to keep the press at bay on occasions such as this?

"Well Alistair has done a superb job in keeping this individual away from you lot," Ms White said. "The average man in the street wouldn't have a clue who Alistair is. The only person who would know is a hack. This would happen only if a journalist, who had been tipped off anyway, was already on the scent and at the house."

Oflot regards Camelot as secure. A spokesman, Colin Seabrook, said scrutiny of Camelot employees included their financial details, "which are checked with the various regulatory authorities that we need to contact, including those operating in the financial world".

If Camelot is clean on this matter, who narked? The Sun's lottery correspondent, who writes under the name "Lenny Lottery", was unavailable last week, but a spokesman for the Mirror said the Jack Straw statement was "absolute total nonsense. He's suggesting such a Machiavellian plot by Camelot - I don't think they have the wit to think all that up. We have gained all our information from outside, from people who know the person in the locality."

According to the newsagent on Whalley Old Road, the lottery winner was fingered by a fellow-worker after calling in sick on Monday (the new multi-millionaire had never taken time off before). The winner is aware who spilled the beans. Louise White said: "It was someone he knew. We're talking about an extended family here - lots of people within the family knowing."

The newspapers stopped short of publishing the winner's name, despite their successful appeal against a Camelot court injunction forbidding it. Two of them - the Sun and the Mirror - said they would not pay a reward after all. (This forbearance took muchof the heat out of a Commons debate on the matter on Friday, though it is understood that ministers still hope for strong guidelines from the Press Complaints Commission.)

According to the Mirror, there were "private reasons to do with the winner and his family" that argued against identifying him. He is now thought to have left the country. "Any editor would have said yeah, fair enough these are reasons for not highlighting him."

And what could those reasons be? The answer may concern the winner's three young children.

With £18m at stake, kidnapping cannot be ignored. In Australia 34 years ago, Basil Thorne, a commercial traveller, won £100,000 in a New South Wales lottery. His eight-year-old son Graeme was abducted soon afterwards. The kidnapper demanded £25,000. Whenit failed to arrive soon enough for his taste, he killed the boy.

Facts such as this make make the need for secrecy so obvious that the only wonder is that it did not occur to newspapers before, and indeed to Camelot before they issued Monday's statement, which was not quite as opaque and shielding as it could have been. Factories in the north of England are not so numerous as they once were, and neither are fathers of three. And why the detail of the winner's newspaper reading habits? Camelot said yesterday that it would rather not comment on that point. An obvious answer, however, is that much of the lottery's success depends on newspaper coverage. Perhaps Camelot was only trying to be helpful.

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