The down side of a windfall

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 December, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 December, 1994, 12:00am

SUPPOSE you are Mr or Mrs Ordinary and you win HK$216 million, would you want the world to know about it? Come to that, would you want a windfall of that size if you were Mr Ordinary? Wouldn't it lead to distrust and perhaps remove any form of drive or ambition. The risk would be of becoming an incredibly well-off couch potato, bored silly within months.

Those most capable of handling large amounts of money are usually those who have made their fortunes themselves and are thus capable of accepting the lifestyle it dictates.

Anyway to the point. Britain's National Lottery has only been running a month and already it is steeped in controversy. Under the law governing its establishment winners have the right to remain anonymous if they choose to do so.

But the first really big winner came this week when a chemical factory worker in northern England with three children, a wife and an income of around HK$3,000 a week chose the correct numbers and won GBP18 million (HK$216 million). He decided to remain anonymous.

But nobody has ever won that much before in Britain, consequently the press and public interest was massive. Camelot, the company running the lottery on behalf of the Government, deliberately leaked some of the man's details - in agreement with him - to keep the interest high. It was a clever piece of natural marketing.

The newspapers offered substantial rewards of several thousand pounds to whoever would leak details of the winner, then they got cold feet and withdrew the incentive offer.

In a display of alleged responsibility they have still not named the overnight multi-millionaire. But we learnt, with the help of the leaked information, that he lived on a housing estate, read The Sun and The People and watched satellite television.

The leak also helped the newspapers discover his home town of Blackburn and come up with detailed stories. He is Asian which provoked an outrage from Islamic clerics remonstrating about the evils of gambling.

Camelot won a court injunction to prevent the papers naming him but that was subsequently lifted by a High Court judge after arguments from counsel for three newspaper groups.

The judge made clear, essentially, that the newspapers had a legal right to name the person if they could identify him.

Camelot's licence to operate the game is due to run until 2001. But just four weeks into its operation its methods are being questioned.

The affair has provoked a furore among MPs over the role of the tabloid press and of Camelot's collusion with them. Inquiries are promised.

THE prospect of the renegade hounds of the tabloids harassing an innocent does not appeal to anyone. On the first day of the search, his home town was wrongly identified as Dewsbury in Yorkshire. The pack descended there and chased a man who had only won a local bingo game. Very funny, apart from for the man himself.

But I fear that if politicians invest too much capital on this one it will work against them. If I inherit a lot of money I may not want everyone to know about it. Similarly, if one is convicted of drunken driving, anonymity would be preferred. But the press would quite rightly publish one's name.

In a free and open society it is all but impossible to stop the details of somebody who has won such an unrealistically high sum of money being revealed.

The National Lottery is becoming a National Preoccupation. Charities are terrified their takings will plummet as we all rush to buy our GBP1 tickets every week. The potential long term effect on our culture is already becoming apparent.

But in this week's case even if Camelot had given no help whatsoever there can be no doubt the press would have discovered the winner's identity. The law of loose tongues would mean that local papers or news agencies would get to hear of it soon and the game would be up.

I suspect that one will have to always bear in mind that, although the odds against winning are enormous, the risks to one's privacy associated with success are just as huge.