Morning Call: pick of the papers

The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

1. Forget Ken's cronies. Now it's Boris's buddies (Guardian)

Boris Johnson's choice of Andrew Gilligan as London's cycling tsar increases the whiff of cronyism around the London mayor, writes Sonia Purnell.

2. Cameron can prove de Gaulle was right about us all along (Daily Telegraph)

Eurosceptics should not barrack the PM’s speech when it comes: they should bank it, says Charles Moore.

3. Cuba’s ideals failed. But at least it had them (Times) (£)

A Tory isn’t supposed to think this, writes Matthew Parris. But Havana’s revolutionaries had something that is missing in Britain.

4. A load of Thunderballs: James Bond is fiction, not a police instruction manual (Guardian)

A shocking ruling (let's call it the 007 standard) gives undercover police licence to break hearts, writes Jonathan Freedland. It's the hacking of people's lives.

5. This week has looked like an obscene remake of earlier western interventions (Independent)

We are outraged not by the massacre of the innocents, but because the hostages killed were largely white, blue-eyed chaps rather than darker, brown-eyed chaps, says Robert Fisk.

6. Barack Obama’s second term (Financial Times)

The US president must recapture the promise of a better politics, says an FT editorial.

7. Both Labour and the Lib Dems are guilty of gross hypocrisy and confusion over the EU (Daily Mail)

The two centre-left parties are in denial about the state of public opinion on the issue, and their utter failure to respond to it, writes Simon Heffer.

8. Unthinkable? Paul Krugman for shadow chancellor (Guardian)

If Barack Obama doesn't want the Nobel laureate as his treasury secretary then Labour should snap him up, says a Guardian editorial.

9. Life in the high street yet (Daily Telegraph)

To save our town centres, we must make them places for meeting and recreation – and why not have people living there, says a Telegraph leader.

10. Armstrong took his countrymen for a ride (Financial Times)

The American self-image of resilience, hard work, charity and ‘dreams has its dark side, writes Christopher Caldwell.

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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