Wednesday 20 March 2019

The dark heart of the big bookies' dark trade

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Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

I think we have been here before. Last week, the British papers reported the latest scandal to afflict the betting corporations with headlines such as: "Paddy Power encouraged gambler until he lost his home, jobs, and family".

A report by the Gambling Commission also noted that the company did not do enough to ensure that its betting machines were not being used for money-laundering.

But it is the image of the unfortunate individual, "Customer A", that is most unsettling - indeed, a shop manager and his staff were rightly concerned with the condition of this man, who was working five separate jobs to feed his addiction, and they shared their concerns with a senior employee who advised that "steps should be taken to try to increase Customer A's visits and time spent in the gambling premises".

Here we find a truly dark interpretation of the Responsible Gambling concept, whereby a client with an obvious gambling addiction was identified, with the result that his weakness was exploited all the more.

He was only advised to seek help when a staff member met him on the street a few months later and learned that he had lost his jobs, was homeless and had lost access to his children - either they had realised that they couldn't get any more out of him, or the staff member was displaying signs of humanity here, and I would prefer to think it was the latter.

Indeed, you get the impression from this and other cases of this nature that employees who are dealing directly with addicted gamblers are struggling with a corporate culture that is concentrated only on the numbers.

In accepting the findings of the report, and making a donation of a mere £280,000 (€361,000)to a "socially responsible" cause, the corporate bookies admitted that "the historical failings outlined in this report were clearly unacceptable" - which is perhaps less of an admission than it seems.

So the failings were "historical"? Well then that's not so bad is it? So this stuff was going on during the 1970s perhaps? Or maybe even the 1870s?

Try 2014.

It was around the middle of 2014 that that doomed gambler was found homeless, and since we are now just into 2016, not only is this not "historical", to paraphrase William Faulkner, it is hardly even the past.

So we must be mindful of this urge to minimise, even as the corporation is insisting that it has "significantly strengthened" its internal procedures.

Arguably, the "procedures" are not working too badly at all; it's the ultimate purpose of them which needs to be examined more closely.

They were working fine in a case which we have been writing about in this paper since well before 2014 - how "historical" is that? - the case of Tony O'Reilly, the An Post manager in Gorey who was swept away by his addiction and who was eventually jailed for stealing approximately €1.75 million of An Post's money which he had lost online to Paddy Power.

They knew that a man with an ordinary job, living in an ordinary house, was punting tens of thousands a day, it was their response to this which was interesting - not only did they not enquire as to the source of his great wealth, he was their valued guest at the Aviva stadium, the recipient not of an "intervention", but of executive class entertainment.

Yes, we have been here before, and with this constant urge to minimise, both on the part of the industry and many in the media, we will be here again.

Ray D'Arcy, on his radio show, reminded his listeners last week of the O'Reilly case, but outside of this paper, Ray has been almost alone in challenging the betting industry, in declaring that there is a gambling epidemic and that, for a lot of people, it is not going to end well.

But with each new story of madness and destruction - and they're coming all the time - our little band is growing.

I would say that the one thing to be understood, above all else, is that online gambling is essentially a new addiction. It is not just a cranked-up version of the ancient addiction of gambling, it is beyond that, and it can't be measured using the old ways - we are hearing from the industry that "about 1pc" of punters have a problem, which may just be another of their little jokes, but really it is too early to tell.

What we do know, is that men such as "Customer A" have always been around, but that they used to exist in a demi-monde; denizens of sordid bookies shops which were viewed by society as places of low resort, and regulated accordingly - it was legal, but they didn't make it easy for you.

Nobody gave a damn what happened to such people, they were viewed merely as losers who brought this misfortune on themselves.

And that is still a brutish reality, at the heart of this dark trade, except now it is so harder to avoid, now the casualties are rising as if during a long war some devastating new form of weaponry has been introduced. Now they do make it easy for you, and they are doing it with much publicity, not by hiding themselves away in the back streets.

That was "historical".

Sunday Independent

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