The machines that ate my life

Forget super-casinos: worry about the brash "virtual roulette" in the high street

Three days ago, I got paid and put all my money into a machine in a Coral's betting shop around the corner from where I live. I didn't mean to. I didn't want to. But I did. It's called a "virtual roulette" machine; the gaming industry calls it a "fixed-odds betting terminal", or FOBT. Walk into any bookies in the country and you'll see several, all with the sounds and effects of a real roulette wheel, usually with a crowd around them. It took less than an hour to lose my money. I walked home, sat in front of my window and wept. Occasionally, the word "probation" crossed my mind and I found myself slamming the window sill.

That is the word that our Secretary of State for Culture, Tessa Jowell, used during the second reading of the Gambling Bill in November to describe how the government views the 20,000 unregulated roulette machines that have been in betting shops up and down the country since 2001. Frankly, it was nothing more than an aside. Last month, during the third reading, she didn't even mention them. The remainder of her speech - indeed, the rest of the near-six-hour debate - concentrated mainly on the issue of deregulating casinos.

This is nothing new. Over the past several months, I have listened to politicians, journalists, editors, bishops, social workers, experts, members of the public and even a "professor of gambling" talking or writing about the consequences of relaxing the gambling regulations. Talk has centred on the so-called super-casinos and fears that this country is about to be turned into Las Vegas. The debates on the Gambling Bill have followed the same pattern.

Why is no one talking about this or showing what is happening? This government has already relaxed the gaming laws to such an extent that there are now thousands of "mini-casinos" in the country, and each one houses one or more of these roulette machines - a far more addictive and lethal game than anything you will find at a "proper" casino.

Put simply, you can now walk up any high street, in any town, on any day of the week, at ten o'clock in the morning, and be able to feed - literally feed - anything up to £500 into a machine for one spin. A few seconds later you can do it again. If you are short of ready cash, no problem, because you can use your credit card. If you find feeding £20 notes into a machine a bit laborious, just give the cashier your money and she will "top up" the machine for you, automatically. And if you find it a bit tedious having to press the start button for each game, there's an auto button, and then a repeat button. The cumulative effect is that there can be only seconds between each spin: exactly the formula for turning anyone into a potential addict. You can win or lose thousands of pounds in minutes.

Jowell calls these machines "very popular". That is an understatement. British gamblers are staking more than three times as much money on them (£290m) as they bet every week on the National Lottery (£88m).

This new betting craze, the annualised turnover of which is estimated at more than £15bn at the "big five" bookmakers, has become far and away Britain's most popular gambling product. Since the machines were introduced in 2001, betting-industry turnover has had a fourfold leap to £29.4bn. Gambling addiction has leapt, too. Only this month, GamCare, the gambling addiction charity, linked the rising number of calls to its helpline to the spread of roulette machines in betting shops.

Gambling in general has cost me dearly, but these machines especially so. A few years ago, I moved to a town that doesn't have a casino. This meant I would have to travel for miles to get to a roulette machine.

It was a good disincentive. Then the virtual roulette machines arrived and my world fell apart. I was like a heroin addict who suddenly could get a fix five hundred yards from his front doorstep.

It's what I did again this week. And it is why the debate over the Gambling Bill, again, has left me close to tears with frustration. You have got to understand that for me - and thousands like me - it's personal.

James Burton will be the subject of a 90-minute documentary special, The Confession, on BBC2 in April this year

This article first appeared in the 21 February 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Condoleezza Rice

Stephen Conroy lambasted by the Murdoch press for "timid post-Leveson regulation". Photograph: Getty Images.
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Hold the front page! We need free media not an Order of Mates

In Australia, hard-won rights are being buried beneath corporate might.

The other day, I stood outside the strangely silent building where I began life as a journalist. It is no longer the human warren that was Consolidated Press in Sydney, though ghosts still drink at the King’s Head pub nearby. As a cadet reporter, I might have walked on to the set of Lewis Milestone’s The Front Page. Men in red braces did shout, “Hold the front page!” and tilt back their felt hats and talk rapidly with a roll-your-own attached indefinitely to their lower lip. You could feel the presses rumbling beneath and smell the ink.

This was the Daily Telegraph, where I learned to report crime, courts, sport, killer bees, Rotary meetings and the arrival of almost famous people from that mysterious land, “overseas”. The proprietor was Frank Packer, a former boxer immortalised in Cyril Pearl’s Wild Men of Sydney and knighted for his vendettas against anyone to the political left of Pontius Pilate.

“Sir Frank” was seen on the editorial floor on Saturday nights after the races. If his horse had lost, fear and loathing were a presence. Once, he cancelled all the late editions and exiled the production staff to the King’s Head, where their necessary return was negotiated from a phone on the public bar.

My only encounter with Sir Frank was when I foolishly boarded a geriatric lift precariously filled with the corpulent proprietor and his two gargantuan sons, Clyde and Kerry. “Who the fuck are you?” asked Kerry, later to find distinction as the moneybags behind World Series Cricket.

The training was superb. A style developed by a highly literate editor, Brian Penton, who had published poetry in the Telegraph, instilled a respect for English grammar and the value of informed simplicity. Words such as “during” were banned; “in” was quite enough. The passive voice was considered lazy and banned, along with most clichés and adjectives – except those in the splenetic editorials demanding all Reds go to hell. When I boarded a rust-streaked Greek ship for Europe I was sorry to leave; I had begun to learn about the craft of journalism and about those who controlled it and used it and why.

A lesson that endures is that when the rich and powerful own the means of popular enlightenment and dress it up as a “free press”, bestowing a false respectability called “the mainstream”, the opposite is usually true. Sir Frank turned out to be a minnow compared with Rupert Murdoch, who bought the Telegraph in 1972 and today controls 70 per cent of Australia’s capital-city press, along with dozens of local and regional newspapers. In Adelaide and Brisbane he owns almost everything. Two conglomerates dedicated to a doctrinaire, often extreme world-view – Murdoch’s News Limited and Fairfax Media – control 86 per cent of the Australian press.

This absence of choice and real dissent, let alone “balance”, extends to the national broadcaster, the ABC, a progeny of the BBC run as a corporate hierarchy. There are honourable exceptions, of course, among them Philip Dorling, Kate McClymont and Quentin Dempster. Unlike the US and Britain, independent online journalism is rare. The result is a sameness that seems remarkable and demeaning in an educated society.

Murdoch’s augmented obsessions rule. His newspapers loathe the Labor government of Julia Gillard. This is inexplicable, as Labor’s policies are more or less those of the conservative coalition of Tony “Mad Monk” Abbott. When the communications minister, Stephen Conroy, proposed timid post-Leveson regulation, he was depicted as Stalin in the fashion of the Sun in London. In 2010, when the then Labor prime minister, Kevin Rudd, announced a modest tax on the megaprofits of mining companies, he was deposed by his own party following a propaganda campaign across the media, largely funded by the mining lobby.

Public perception of nonconformist minor - ities, especially Australia’s indigenous people, is often taken from the media. These unique first people are seen as “bludgers” – spongers. This inverts a truth that is almost never news: a parasitical, lucrative white industry is, in effect, licensed by federal and state governments to exploit indigenous hardship.

Like America, Australia in its early colonial days had a vibrant press, a “medley of competing voices”, wrote Edward Smith Hall, editor of the crusading Sydney Monitor. Journalists were “the voice of the people” and not of the “trade of authority”. In the late 19th century, there were 143 independent newspapers in New South Wales alone. By 1988, the empires of Murdoch, Fairfax, Packer and the “entrepreneur” Alan Bond, later imprisoned for the country’s biggest corporate fraud, dominated the “mainstream” as an exclusive Order of Mates.

This is also true across much of the democratic world. The medley of voices on the internet has dented monopoly media power, though the same monopolies are now consuming the web. “Social media” are largely introverted, a look-at-me peep show for the digitally besotted. As the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta approaches, hard-won rights such as the presumption of innocence are buried beneath the tentacular might of corporate systems.

Ironically, in the “information age”, censorship by omission is a weapon of this power – the silencing of whistleblowers, without whom journalism can never be free, and of a compliant, privileged “left”. Militarised policing, displayed recently in Boston, consumes an autocratic America waging “perpetual war” and now threatening China. In Europe, a savage class war rages from Greece to Spain and Britain. It is no surprise that newspapers in thrall to this corrupt power are ailing.

Edmund Burke mythologised the press as a fourth estate. Today, we need a “fifth estate” right across the media and in journalism training and on the streets. We need those, like Edward Smith Hall, who see themselves as agents of people not power.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 13 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Eton Mess