Ten stories I spotted while on hols

From Obama and health care to Rod Liddle and multiculturalism.

As I mentioned in a recent column, I've been away on holiday, visiting the in-laws in the United States.

But I thought I'd do a quick run-through of the top ten stories I spotted -- and wanted to blog about but couldn't -- while I was on vacation.

In no particular order:

1) Health care: Barack Obama persuaded a recalcitrant, divided and dysfunctional Congress to pass his historic health-care reform bill. This was no small achievement, in a nation where one American woman I bumped into compared buying health insurance to buying car insurance: it should be each person's individual responsibility. Writing on our letters page in this week's double-issue of the magazine, LabourList's Alex Smith takes us to task for Andrew Stephen's "tepid and more than a little begrudging" praise of Obama's legislative achievement. But here's the problem. While I agree with Vice-President Joe Biden that the reform was a "big f--king deal", as it will ultimately provide coverage to more than 30 million uninsured Americans, it will still leave at least 15 million Americans uninsured in the long run. Nor does the law introduce a single-payer system, or even the much-discussed, centrist and popular "public option". It is a bad law. But I do support the (bad) law because anything -- anything! -- is better than the current, awful US health-care system.

2) Israeli-US relations: Talking of Biden, it was amusing and amazing to see the self-destructive Israeli right embarrass and insult one of America's most pro-Israeli politicians during his visit to the Jewish state by announcing a new planning and expansion phase for 1,600 apartments in east Jerusalem. Binyamin Netanyahu apologised -- but only for the timing. Or, in the words of Daniel Levy, a former adviser to Ehud Barak and now Middle East analyst at the New America Foundation: "I'm sorry I slapped you on Monday: next time, I promise, it won't be on a Monday." But it wasn't just Biden who was insulted. Here is Prime Minister Netanyahu's brother-in-law, commenting on the "anti-Semitic" Barack Obama: "It needs to be said clearly and simply: There is an anti-Semitic president in the US. It's not that Obama doesn't sympathise with [Netanyahu]. He doesn't sympathise with the people of Israel." Hilarious.

3) BNP divisions: The Sunday Times reported at the weekend how "Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party, has told police that a senior colleague threatened to kill him after an investigation into a political 'conspiracy'. Mark Collett, the BNP's head of publicity, has been arrested and suspended from the party after the discovery of an alleged plot by a 'small clique' of officials to overthrow its leadership." Is this the behaviour one would expect from the officials of a mainstream political party? Will the BBC and others now get the message that the British National Party is a collection of loons and thugs, and not a normal party? Can you imagine Tony Blair reporting Alastair Campbell to the police, claiming Ali C was trying to kill him?

4) MPs for hire: My reaction to the secretly filmed footage of Geoff Hoon, Patricia Hewitt and Stephen Byers prostituting themselves to a fictional US public relations firm, courtesy of Channel 4's Dispatches? Disgust. But not surprise. I'm proud to point out that I skewered this trio of venal Blairite ultras in two separate blog posts in recent months. I despise their money-grubbing antics, which have further undermined trust in our political classes. These three former cabinet ministers were, in the words of Geoffrey Wheatcroft in today's Guardian, "soliciting work more like whores than taxi drivers". Hats off to my former Channel 4 colleagues Dorothy Byrne and Kevin Sutcliffe for commissioning this excellent sting operation, and to my friend Antony Barnett for reporting it.

5) Paedophiles and the Catholic Church: In the wake of revelations that the Church covered up decades of sexual abuse and beatings by priests and nuns, I find it difficult to disagree with the verdict of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, that the Catholic Church has "lost all credibility".Given the current Pope's alleged involvement, I also wonder whether it isn't time for Catholic cardinals and theologians to re-evaluate the 140-year-old doctrine of "papal infallibility". Meanwhile, Geoffrey Robertson, QC is calling for the Pope to be tried at the International Criminal Court.

6) Tories, big business and National Insurance: Shock! Horror! Right-wing business leaders support Tory tax cut. Shock! Horror! The business leaders backing the Tory proposal to stop the rise in National Insurance include a number who've given close to half a million pounds in personal donations to the Tory party. Hold the press!

7) Afghanistan deaths: In under-reported remarks, the near-deified commander of US forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, said: "We've shot an amazing number of people and killed a number and, to my knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat to the force." Meanwhile, Afghan officials have stated that Nato jets killed four civilians, including a child, during a firefight with Taliban militants in Helmand Province this week. Fantastic. Winning hearts and minds, I guess . . .

8) Iraq elections (and deaths): Did you know that Iraq's much-awaited and much-praised parliamentary elections last month, in the words of National Public Radio, "left no clear winner, promising months of horse-trading among the Shia, Sunni and ethnic Kurdish blocs"? You might not, given the meagre coverage Iraq gets in our newspapers these days. Did you know that the top Shia bad boy, Moqtada al-Sadr, is now the Nick Clegg of Iraqi politics? With some 40 seats, the Sadrists are the new kingmakers in Baghdad. What an irony. Oh, and have you seen the disturbing and graphic Wikileaks video (dated 12 July 2007) of two US helicopter gunships opening fire on, and killing, 12 unarmed Iraqis, including two journalists who worked for the Reuters news agency? "Look at those dead b******s," one crew member says. "Nice," another responds.

9) Blair's return: I'm sorry to have missed Tony Blair's speech to Trimdon Labour Club in his former constituency, Sedgefield. The perma-tanned ex-premier praised Gordon Brown's "experience, judgement and boldness" and rightly described the Tories' claim that it was Time for Change as "the most vacuous slogan in politics". But did the multimillionaire consultant to JPMorgan and Louis Vuitton, who arrived in a BMW 7-Series, make any contribution to the cash-strapped and struggling Labour Club? From the Times: "Keith Thompson, 50, vice-chairman of the club and a parish councillor who has voted Labour all his life, said: 'We have written to Blair four times since last August and not even received a reply. He has come and used and abused it. There are a lot of people who think that. That is the talk in the club.' " Lovely . . .

10) Rod Liddle and the Press Complaints Commission: I can't say I wasn't pleased to see the toothless PCC censure the Spectator journalist for crass and inaccurate remarks last year, on his blog, about the "overwhelming majority" of violent crime in London being perpetrated by young African-Caribbean men. I'm just astonished it had nothing to say about his concluding remarks: "The overwhelming majority of street crime, knife crime, gun crime, robbery and crimes of sexual violence in London is carried out by young men from the African-Caribbean community. Of course, in return, we have rap music, goat curry and a far more vibrant and diverse understanding of cultures which were once alien to us. For which, many thanks." What were you thinking, Rod?

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war