Broadcaster Baz Ashmawy counts the human cost of our modern struggle with gambling
Baz Ashmawy talks to Declan Lynch about his new TV documentary and why he was drawn to exploring the attraction of gambling
In today's challenging media environment, it can work something like this: a few weeks ago, Baz Ashmawy came down with a camera crew to Fitzgerald's pub in Avoca, to interview me about this documentary on gambling that he was doing for RTE One television.
Now that his work on the documentary called All Bets Are Off is done, and it is ready to be broadcast on Monday, April 23, I am interviewing him about what he has encountered along the way, as he makes a few late changes to his voiceover in a Dublin studio.
I should add that I have no other part in the proceedings, except that of being a contributor on the subject of online gambling - though Tony O'Reilly, the main protagonist in our book Tony 10 also makes an appearance, when Baz goes with him to Carrickfergus, Co Antrim, to which he fled when it was discovered that he had stolen €1.75m from the branch of An Post that he managed in Gorey, Co Wexford.
When we met in Avoca, Co Wicklow, in the Ballykissangel pub indeed, Baz's mood on the subject he was about to explore was probably a bit lighter than it is today. He chatted for a while about his father, from whom his mother had separated when Baz was very young, and how he had been a poker player. He remembered times when they were living in rented accommodation and when money won at the tables might have bought a house, if it hadn't swiftly been returned to the tables from whence it came.
He doesn't think that this was necessarily motivating him to have a look at the gambling phenomenon, but he had noticed that when he was working with a TV crew, and they would start to play poker during their breaks, some instinct would stop him from joining in -with six children of his own now to support, perhaps he couldn't countenance even the possibility of leaving them short for any reason associated with the turn of a card.
But still he was not doing this programme to resolve some personal struggle, the idea was mentioned to him and he just became interested in the subject on a number of levels, most of which were to do with simply looking around him and seeing so many people gambling on their phones, young people in particular. He knew that something big was going on here, he just wasn't quite sure what it was.
"You know once you're switched on to something - like when you're having a baby, I suppose, you notice prams and babies everywhere. I started to notice everything to do with gambling all around me, and it felt quite intoxicating to a certain extent. And there was a moment I was on a WhatsApp group and a couple of my mates were talking about odds on a match and odds on a UFC fight and odds on the golf, and I thought, I really want to do something, I really want to find out more. I started knowing nothing, and by the end I was quite fuelled up."
So while memories of his father may have nudged him in this direction, soon he was seeing this as a story which involves many men, which touches multitudes.
"There's something attractive to men about it. The confirmation of predicting something, and then being right, and then getting a little reward as well. That's all just really, really nice, and it plays to the male ego."
Baz would also see himself as someone with an addictive kind of personality, which gives him an empathy with others in that situation: "I just relate to people with addictive personalities. It's my understanding that addiction comes from a slight emptiness inside people… there's a hole there, that people feel they need to fill. And they'll fill it with drink or drugs or gambling or food or whatever it is, as a form of escapism. And I understand that, I understand wanting that escape from the pressure of life or whatever it is.
"I never quite had the understanding for gambling that I did with other kinds of addiction, maybe because I didn't see it as a chemical addiction, you know? It's only when you talk to these problem gamblers that you see what it is. It's a real, real, addiction but it's so normalised… reminds me of cigarette companies in the 1950s where everyone was smoking in movies and it was just normal and fine, and sure, why wouldn't you? It's everywhere around you but it's so everywhere around you that it's invisible… if that makes sense."
This "normalisation" has not come about by accident, but as part of an enormously successful long-term strategy on the part of the corporate bookmakers, involving a tsunami of advertising and sponsorship - so while you'll hear a few voices trying to raise awareness of the addictive nature of online gambling in particular (Ray D'Arcy has been very strong on this), you will hear these far louder voices achieving the opposite effect, raising unawareness.
Thus for the Cheltenham Festival this year, it seemed perfectly normal for the Ryan Tubridy radio show to be taking sponsorship from "our friends in Paddy Power", with only a few complaints about the obviously inadequate declaration of the extent of that sponsorship - something which was admitted eventually by RTE, when they said that listeners could have been "more clearly reminded".
Yes, it seemed like the height of normality , for the Tubridy show to be coming from the Paddy Power box at Cheltenham, and there is something else that has worked well in this business of raising unawareness: sports betting is something that mainly involves young men. And Baz has been thinking about that too.
"No one gives a shit about young men, that's the thing. No one cares at the moment. They're not popular to care about. I have two young lads at home, and I've been a young man, and it's hard, and there's pressures. And we live in an Instagram generation now, when you're supposed to have this, and have that, and everything's in your face. And everyone has this slight feeling that they're just not quite cutting it, you know? They're just not quite good enough. And Jesus, they think, wouldn't winning a load of money make that much better?"
Being a tremendously likeable fellow, an Emmy-winning TV presenter who is charismatic enough to be making international TV hits, perhaps the voice of Baz on these issues will be heard for a few minutes at least above that cacophony which is coming constantly from the gambling industry. The documentary airs at 9.30pm, prime time.
He speaks of the difference between having a few drinks with friends, and gambling which is usually a much more isolated activity - which reminds us that some spectacular new TV ads emphasise the global interconnectedness of the experience, suggesting that when you are betting, you are part of something much greater than yourself, you are not alone.
It should be easy to extrapolate from this, that the opposite is true. The addiction may be isolating, but Baz learned that it can have effects on others who are very much connected to the gambler, whether they know it or not. And that the online gambling issue is by no means the only one.
"I spoke to a young lady whose father was a problem gambler and is a problem gambler still, and her story was kind of heartbreaking. Her experiences were so difficult. It tears families apart. It's only when you scratch the surface of it… I spoke to a woman who was addicted to scratch cards. And I couldn't understand. I said, I can understand lowering a bottle of vodka… her partner had died in a car crash, and she just reverted to these scratch cards. She was on benefits and she racked up debts of 70 grand. And I was like, but what comfort were you getting? She said it was just knowing I could go home and sit in bed... she'd get her money on a Thursday, spend it all on scratch cards, wouldn't even have the price of milk for a cup of tea, and would kind of starve herself till the next Wednesday..."
Above all in the making of this, Baz was struck by that sense of the invisibility of it, this dark magic whereby gambling is everywhere, and yet nowhere at all.
"It's so shocking that some of it I couldn't quite get my head around - you know, the world is spinning in these mad directions to a certain extent, it's all about the bottom line… but it doesn't have to be all about that. There are people in society who are weaker and who need help. And that's what we're supposed to be doing. It's not about pointing the finger, like, everyone is entitled to make money and do whatever they want, but there's a load of people here who are suffering, and I mean a load. This was easily the hardest documentary I've ever had to make, as in getting people to talk to me. The level of shame… I couldn't get over it. The highest rate of suicide is associated with this addiction, it's a real problem, and people are just sitting back and ignoring it….
"It's enough now, it really is enough."
All Bets Are Off will be shown on RTE One at 9.30pm on April 23