Saturday 15 December 2018

Now the President takes on the bookies

President Donald Trump speaks to a large crowd on August 2, 2018 at the Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. Picture: Getty
President Donald Trump speaks to a large crowd on August 2, 2018 at the Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. Picture: Getty
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

When President Higgins told Darren Frehill on RTE radio of his objections to advertising for gambling, and about other such issues pertaining to sports betting, it was clear that he knew what he was talking about - that these were not just "concerns" that somebody else told him he should have, that he understands the exposure of any vulnerable person to online gambling, and the threat to what he called the "integrity" of sport.

He had read the stories, he had visited the people recovering from gambling addiction in Hope House in Mayo.

"For too long in Ireland we often ignore problems that are staring us in the face," he said. Which could easily be seen as a reminder that we recently "celebrated" five years of the Gambling Control Bill of 2013 not being enacted.

But it also reminds us of other things that we never get around to doing until it's too late - things to do with housing and health and trying to stop the country going bust every few years. Yes there is a deep lack of understanding about the monstrosities of the gambling industry, but there is more to this than mere shallowness on the part of the political class.

It's not just the fact that they "ignore problems that are staring us in the face", they seem to embrace that state of being. It is only when they are ignoring problems that are staring us in the face that they feel truly alive.

And this dread of actually doing anything, is exacerbated by a natural bias which they display, consciously or unconsciously, in favour of those who are least in need.

So when you have vulnerable individuals on the one side, their lives destroyed by a gambling addiction, and betting corporations on the other side who are gorging themselves on the punters' money, and there's this Gambling Control Bill which might entail some modest regulation of that industry, the fear of actually doing anything will be at its most acute.

Always I have seen this gambling business as a reflection of this wider dynamic, whereby the individual is exposed to the vultures and is devoured, while the great corporations, be they the bookies or the banks, move on. They are forever moving on.

It struck me again last week when I was on the Ivan Yates radio show with Richard Chambers, talking about Michael D's intervention, and we got to the issue of responsibility. Chambers, who has done some valuable work on gambling, rightly put forward the argument that there is a personal responsibility here, on the part of the problem gambler, and we should not forget it.

But, of course, we are not forgetting it. In the case that I know best, that of Tony O'Reilly or "Tony 10", one of those devastating stories to which Michael D was alluding, there was no bail-out, no write-down. When it was established that he'd stolen €1.75m from his employer An Post to fund his online account with the Paddy Power corporation, Tony took the hit. He went to jail. The corporation moved on.

And as I was sitting there talking to Richard Chambers about personal responsibility and corporate responsibility, and how one exists and the other doesn't, it struck me that I have been on many radio and TV programmes talking about these issues, with nobody from the other side to contradict me.

Maybe it's another of these things that are "staring us in the face", but in this area I accepted long ago that when I am talking about the gambling phenomenon, my opponent, as it were, will be an empty chair. I shouldn't be accepting this, of course, it is a perfect illustration of our conditioning by the ruling powers, but even in that culture in which they are forever moving on, the bookies are perhaps the most extreme case - they even sent the old empty chair to Claire Byrne when she wanted to discuss All Bets Are Off, the TV documentary presented by Baz Ashmawy.

Here is this industry selling an alarmingly addictive form of diversion, selling it with an almost maniacal determination through advertising and sponsorship and promotions, with the victims already piled high and many more on the way, and they will not talk about it.

The President himself wants the advertising to stop - they will not talk about it. They must know at this stage that they have won, that any regulation of the tsunami of advertising would be strictly in the realm of damage limitation. But they will not talk about it.

They will talk about many other things though, they have hyper-active PR departments pumping out funny stories to the media, buying advertising time like voracious property developers assembling some absurdly large land bank. Which may help to explain not just their reluctance to talk about it, but the fact that they are not exactly being plagued with requests to talk about it.

When the Premier League kicks off next weekend, nine of the 20 clubs will have gambling companies on their shirts, along with a startling 17 of the 24 teams in the Championship - startling at least to me and Michael D Higgins, not so startling it seems to more easy-going souls such as the Irish Government, various sporting bodies, and much of the world's media.

A report in the UK said that "experts" on problem gambling found it startling too, and that "a national debate on the potential harm is long overdue".

Unfortunately to have a debate you need at least two parties to show up, and that is not going to happen here.

But we'll keep talking about it anyway.

Neat trap for Trump grotesques

I wouldn't be the greatest fan of Sacha Baron Cohen, and his Who Is America? series on Channel 4 in which he lures various Trump-loving grotesques into situations in which they prove beyond all doubt that they are Trump-loving grotesques. I sometimes find that it is Sacha Baron Cohen himself who is hard to take, kicking down all those open doors.

But I must hail his masterpiece, the recent visit to the depressing town of Kingman, Arizona, once the home of the Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh.

Cohen masquerades as a pony-tailed East Coast liberal who organises a town hall meeting at which he unveils his fabulous plans to invest $385m in Kingman - the plan being to build the biggest mosque in the world outside the Middle East.

With the townspeople reacting almost exactly like the townspeople in Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles when they realise that their new sheriff is a black man, the pony-tailed liberal unveils the artists' impressions of this gigantic mosque, of a futuristic Kingman with sheiks and camels strolling down main street - and by the way, it is partly funded by the Clinton Foundation.

With the townspeople yelping about "terrorism", the pony-tailed liberal reassures them that "we will do everything to protect these Muslims from it".

Ah, it was perfection. And it was done with an admirable disrespect for those who love Donald J Trump (they really love the "J"). Yes I think we have seen enough respect being shown to these characters by reasonable people trying to "understand" them.

Ed Balls is on the BBC these days travelling through Trumpland, making his own saintly contribution, trying to "understand" these rednecks, who are making little effort to understand him back. Probably because they understand him already, and in truth, he understands them already.

Forget about understanding them - looking at those pictures last week of a Donald J Trump crowd braying menacingly at reporters, they just need to be defeated.

* I feel quite sorry for Mick Jagger - an unusual opening line there, I know. But looking at an old interview he did with David Hepworth on a Whistle Test Special, I was again visited by these vague feelings of sympathy for the old devil, who has just turned 75. Yes, he has had a better time than most other human beings who have ever lived, but I fear that his incessant philandering has placed a small seed of resentment in our hearts - and so we withhold some of the reverence that he is due, just for his talent.

We do not hesitate for a moment to recognise the artistry of other giants of the 20th Century such as Bowie, Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Van Morrison. But when we think about Jagger, whose achievement is no less than theirs, we can be distracted from the greatness of his work by the story of his life, which seems to be almost miraculously free of misfortune - unless you count being forced to move for tax reasons in the 1970s to the South of France.

Indeed there are times when Mick is not even regarded as the greatest Rolling Stone.

And I realise that Amnesty will not be seeing this as an injustice which cries out to the heavens for vengeance.

But it is wrong, and now we have made it right.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss