Morning Call: pick of the papers

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

1. Big trouble from little Cyprus (Financial Times)

The calamity that has struck the island threatens wider damage, writes Martin Wolf.

2. D-Day Budget for would-be Chancellor Ed Balls (Daily Telegraph)

Labour's shadow chancellor is feared in Downing Street, but he has not silenced doubters in his own party, writes Mary Riddell.

3. Press regulation: a victory for the rich, the celebrated and the powerful (Guardian)

This new press regulator is all about revenge, not justice, says Simon Jenkins. It's hard to imagine a more chilling deterrent to serious investigation.

4. Labour's chance to lead fiscal policy (Financial Times)

The party should commit to reducing the ratio of public debt to GDP, writes Nick Pearce.

5. Iraq war: make it impossible to inflict such barbarism again (Guardian)

The US and Britain not only bathed Iraq in blood, they promoted a sectarian war that now threatens the region, says Seumas Milne.

6. No turning back. And no rabbits from hats (Times) (£)

The Chancellor cannot afford any bold or tricksy stunts when deficit reduction is the only course to pursue, says Daniel Finkelstein.

7. The Budget of 2018: Future governments will have to learn how to do more with less (Independent)

For 25 years, tax revenue has been stuck at around 38 per cent of GDP, notes Hamish McRae. No government has been able to increase it.

8. If they had a scintilla of decency, Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell and John Scarlett would not show their faces in public again (Daily Mail)

The former prime minister and his spin doctor have wrought such tragedy and grief in the world that they should be regarded as pariahs, says Max Hastings. 

9. Will George Osborne make his mark or show himself as unambitious? (Daily Telegraph)

This Budget will tell us whether George Osborne is content with going down in history as an unambitious, steady as he goes apparatchik, says Allister Heath.

10. François Hollande: Mr Normal takes a battering (Guardian)

The French president's promise to stabilise and reverse unemployment by the end of the year is looking like yet another broken election pledge, notes a Guardian editorial.

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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