Friday 23 August 2019

Declan Lynch: 'House wins in cultural triumph of Bookies Inc'

Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

I knew there must be something strange going on, when the man from the Department of Justice called me to ask if I could take part in one of the panel discussions at the Gambling Seminar held by Minister of State David Stanton at Farmleigh House last Wednesday.

"That's strange," I mused, a speech bubble forming over my head. I have been writing on this subject for about 15 years in these pages, and I have also written three books related to this theme, so naturally in all that time, I have never received a single request from any official body for a contribution on the issues of gambling harm, and where it's coming from, and what might be done about it.

No academic researcher, no "industry representative", and no one from any department has troubled me in all that time, seeking my views on the basis of the 98m words or so that I have written on the matter - though of course they might have been reading the articles or listening to Off The Ball or the Matt Cooper show, and taking copious notes. Or not, as the case may be.

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That is how the world works, I have found, and I accept it. I would merely question how well that world works, when you consider than in 2013, a Gambling Control Bill was published and it is now 2019 and there is still no Gambling Control Bill, as such.

But there is a Gambling Regulator, or at least there will be, in 18 months' time. This was one of the main announcements by Minister of State David Stanton at Farmleigh, this appointment of an actual Regulator with an actual staff of about 100, operating in the actual world at an actual time before the end of 2020.

"That is strange," I mused again.

As I took my place on the afternoon panel with Willie Collins of the Gambling Awareness Trust, and Pauline Campbell of Dunlewey Addiction Services, and Jim Walsh of the Department of Health, I made the perhaps naive suggestion that there is an urgency to the situation, a global epidemic of online gambling indeed, which might require a swifter response than this 18-month time frame.

And ideally it wouldn't be starting from here. It would be starting from, say, 15 years ago. Yet as I looked around that elegant ballroom at Farmleigh, at the various parties with an interest in the proceedings, I realised that Mr Stanton was doing something quite serious here - or to put it more simply, he was doing something.

He was doing something, in such a way that it may not be undone by his successors, taking further soundings from the myriad "stakeholders". And what "stakeholders" they were - you had gambling regulators from many lands, murmuring arcane wisdom; you had men exuding an enormous sense of well-being so I assumed them to be executives from the betting corporations; you had the operators of card clubs or casinos; you had a few people of indeterminate origin taking copious notes; you had members of the caring professions and of the uncaring professions.

Big players, baby!

And in fact one of the problems for legislators or for anyone who is vaguely well intentioned, is that it is too big. Say I am the Minister, and I want to take a hammer to advertising and sponsorship of sporting events by betting corporations. Given the humongous level of their profits and their acquisitive zeal during these years of unregulated frenzy, the bookies now effectively "own" so many sports that if you took away their sponsorship, you'd be taking a hammer to most of the sports too. You would also be taking a hammer to parts of the TV business and, of course, to the advertising game itself.

Say I am the Minister, would I be the Minister for Justice, the Minister for Health, or the Minister for Sport? Maybe the Minister for Finance?

It has become a hydra-headed thing, and as the Minister, not only would I be wrestling with a monstrosity, I would be acutely aware that it is controlled by some of the cleverest people on the planet - you need to be smart to transform a business that was once noted for its seediness and even its sordidness, into a kind of lethal form of family entertainment.

So I'd be quite happy to leave the legislation and so forth to the present Minister, because oddly enough, I am not as fixated on the regulations that the bookies have somehow escaped, as on their cultural triumph.

Because it is that which has informed all the rest of it. Our culture has largely accepted their line, that it's all a bit of fun, that a tiny minority might have a problem (the margin of error, really) and that most people can have an oul' bet and no harm done.

Which is a tad simplistic, when only last week the UK Gambling Commission, which was represented at Farmleigh by the excellent Tim Miller, fined four of its online casino licensees £4.5m for slack attention to anti-money laundering, customer due diligence, and social responsibility obligations. Oh yes, that hydra-headed beast has a money-laundering aspect too.

Hard to imagine that such a thing could conceivably happen in old Ireland by the end of 2020.

Strange but true?

Wee glimpse of the past in orderly Berlin

There was a kind of journalism, practised by the likes of Time magazine, whereby the reporter would spend a few weeks in, say, Germany, swanning around with members of the ruling class and sounding them out on the great issues. Thus he would seek to capture the mood of a nation.

Eventually there might be an interview with the Chancellor, who would be pictured on the cover of Time in visionary pose, alongside a quote from the article, something like: "Germany is not looking to the past, but to the future."

Thanks for that, Mr Chancellor, you would think. Cheers, mate.

I was in Germany for the weekend recently, in Berlin, where I found myself gauging the mood of the people at the heart of Europe in different ways. On a quiet street there was a man standing on a piece of waste ground, urinating. Being Irish, we felt no need to comment on this, or to chide him, assuming as we did that he wasn't doing this for sport, but out of some terrible necessity.

Then we heard this shouting from across the street, coming from two Berliners who were letting the urinater know that he wasn't getting away with it, that he was committing an offence. They seemed determined to fulfil the stereotype of the Germans being sticklers for the rules, an impression that was reinforced later when we saw a motorist - an Irishman, as it happened - driving the wrong way down a one-way street.

Again this shouting started up, from the one other person on the street - and note that this was not Friedrichstrasse, that no great disruption was caused, that the Irishman's car was the only one moving on this leafy side-road, that his error was easily rectified. Still you heard the shouting, the insistence that order be maintained.

And this was Berlin too, beloved of bohemians such as Bowie and Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen, the kind of men who would take urinating against the wall and driving the wrong way down a one-way street, and turn them into performance art.

But the most intriguing observations on the current state of the German soul came from this Berliner who was sitting near me in a restaurant, and who helpfully informed me that the restaurant probably wouldn't take a credit card.

Yes, in Berlin, my Berlin, they sometimes prefer cash to card in much the same way that a pub in a remote part of Co Westmeath might be wary of a Visa or Mastercard - was it such an attitude which informed Germany's implacable stance on "bailing out" the degenerate Greeks and Irish living above their means?

In conversation, my friend the Berliner spoke sadly of his belief that Germans are not as modern as they used to be, that they are no longer comfortable at the cutting edge.

I suppose you could say that Germany is not looking to the future, but to the past.

For the record, Mr Shameless, we don't want to know

Every new piece of information about the David Cameron memoirs brings a little twinge of despair.

First there is the fact that he is bringing out a book in the first place, when he should be spending his time working with the poor of the East End of London, as John Profumo did to atone for his far less egregious errors of judgment. While we now realise that Cameron was probably the least disgusting Tory of his generation, still he expresses no shame.

He is apparently donating the proceeds of the book to various charities, but this carries with it the grim reminder that the publishers HarperCollins paid £800,000 for the rights. Which is made only slightly more bearable by the fact that initial estimates were looking at an advance in the region of £1.5m.

For this they will get a book called For The Record. Ah, there's nothing quite like the title of a political autobiography to deaden the soul. They love that "no-nonsense" style, the pretence that they are being frank, the hackery of it.

Then we learn that when Cameron submitted the manuscript, the publishers asked him to cut 100,000 words. That's quite a cut there - in fact it's a book in itself. And while others will no doubt try to fix some of the bad writing along the way, there is an irreducible badness to any piece of writing which comes in 100,000 words too long.

Knowing what to leave out is the essence of good writing, though with books like For The Record the solution would be to leave out the other 100,000 words too. Because there is nothing at all that David Cameron can do now, to change his place in history as the man who gave the worst people in Britain their big chance.

And no Dave, we don't want to know how you did it.

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