Does the world really want a credible United Nations?

No more mediocrities for the post of secretary general would be a good start.

The post of UN secretary general is a prestigious but frequently thankless role. It also tends to be filled by men (it has always been men so far) who achieve their global status through their office, not on their own merit, and who appear to be wearing a suit slightly too big or too grand for them – they don't quite live up to the job, in other words.

In recent years we have had Kofi Annan – saintly, but ineffectual – and Boutros Boutros-Ghali, whose chippiness would have been amusing, were it not so serious. (He wondered whether British criticism of him, you will recall, was "because I'm a wog".)

And now we have Ban Ki-moon. Leave aside that he looks like the mild-mannered provincial bank manager of ancient stereotype. Here is what he's been up to recently.

Yesterday he opined of the elections in Burma, scheduled for 7 November, that unless the military regime released all political prisoners, "then there may certainly be some issue of legitimacy or credibility". Well, you don't say, Mr Secretary General.

Next he ended a trip to Cambodia after being ambushed by Prime Minister Hun Sen's announcement that the current UN-backed tribunal trial of four leading Khmer Rouge leaders will be the last. No more of Pol Pot's followers will face justice. Hun Sen – himself ex-Khmer Rouge – doesn't believe in turning over any more stones. You don't know what you might find underneath. Oh, and would Mr Ban mind shutting the UN's Cambodian human rights office while he's at it? There's a good fellow.

Where else has he been of late? Thailand, where, according to the Bangkok Post, he courageously declared that the country's long-standing and bloody confrontations between the Red and Yellow Shirts was really none of his business. That was "an internal affair and the Thai people must settle the problem on their own", apparently.

Regular readers will know that I'm not much in favour of western politicians jetting in to developing nations and giving them the benefit of their callow advice (cf: David Miliband in India last year). But for those of us who hope against hope that the UN can be a credible body and an influence for the good, the role of secretary general is crucial.

He – or maybe, eventually, she – has to inject the role with clout through the force of his own personality. The secretary general has to be so impressive that, in future, a Mandela, say, will consider the job an important one, and not a step down from having been chief executive of their own state.

If Ban secures another five-year term – his current one concludes at the end of next year – that day will be even further off. Until then, it's all hail the mediocrity-in-chief.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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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