Ten years ago, soon after he became chair of the Commons culture, media and sport select committee, John Whittingdale cheerily emailed to invite me for a drink. Although he is acknowledged to be a friendly and jolly guy even by political enemies, this possibly had less to do with his innate geniality than being regularly teased in The Independent’s media diary about his platonic passion for Rupert Murdoch.
Foolish politicians pick fights with irritating hacks, and the smarter ones try to silence them by humanising themselves. Knowing this, I declined.
A decade later, I make a reverse offer, though not for a clubbable drink in the Pugin Room at the Muthah of Parliaments. I invite the new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to spend a day walking through a few of London’s centres of urban deprivation, in which the streets are festooned with even more bookmakers than charity shops.
While the initial shock about Whittingdale’s appointment concerned his distaste for the BBC (an uncanny coincidence, given his citation of Murdoch as the media figure he most admires), the aftershock concerns his unexplained and perhaps inexplicable thinking about the uniquely odious aspect of the gambling industry now under his aegis known as FOBTs (Fixed Odds Betting Terminals).
That dry acronym gives no hint of their menace. Electronic gaming has developed since some of us were kids on Brighton pier, shoving pennies into archaic FOBTs, pulling the handles in the hope of three cherries aligning on the win line. The one-armed bandit has retreated into amusement arcade museum. In every Ladbroke’s, Paddy Power and independent bookmaker’s today is a gang of four armed robbers
What FOBT essentially means is a computerised simulation of roulette. The machines offer many other games (blackjack, bingo, poker, and so on). But almost invariably it is roulette the punters are playing, because with roulette the potential return of 35-1 on a number is so enticing. The stakes, while fairly high by most standards at a maximum £50 per spin, are as stratospheric as the potential rewards, given the comparative poverty of the target market.
Appointments in David Cameron's Tory government
Appointments in David Cameron's Tory government
1/7 Amber Rudd: Energy and Climate Change Secretary
Wins a big promotion after increasing her majority in Hastings and Rye despite once describing her constituency as a “bit depressing”. The former banker and financial journalist is considered a moderate Eurosceptic
2/7 Priti Patel: Employment Minister (attending Cabinet)
Former party press officer and now the Witham MP is rewarded for her forceful performances during the election campaign. She is on the right of the party and a Eurosceptic. Ms Patel has called for the return of hanging
3/7 John Whittingdale: Culture Secretary
Having never been a minister in his 23 years as an MP John Whittingdale’s elevation to the Cabinet is meteoric. But his appointment sends a message to Tory backbenchers that preferment is possible even for those who may have given up hope (and be tempted to rebel)
4/7 Anna Soubry: Minister for Small Business
Not long ago the former defence minister feared she would not even be an MP but now she has a key role in the Department for Business and the right to attend Cabinet
5/7 Sajid Javid: Business Secretary
Rising star tipped as Britain’s first prime minister from an ethnic minority. Son of a bus driver, he grew up in two-bedroom flat in Bristol. After university he joined Deutsche Bank. Parliamentary aide to George Osborne before becoming Treasury minister and Culture Secretary
6/7 Greg Clark: Communities Secretary
Thoughtful moderniser who grew up in Middlesbrough where his father and grandfather were milkmen. Was a special adviser before entering Parliament in 2005. In previous ministerial posts he drew up plans to devolve powers to cities
7/7 Matthew Hancock: Cabinet Office minister and Paymaster General
A former aide to George Osborne before becoming an MP in 2010 election. Hancock has had a meteoric ministerial rise
How addictive they are, if at all, is a point of dispute. In 2003, a few weeks after first playing one in a local William Hill, I wrote an article warning Tessa Jowell, the minister responsible, of a monstrous mistake from the perspective of one who had once come close to a life-ruining roulette addiction in casinos. Even there, with a spin every few minutes, roulette is devilishly dangerous, partly because of the high rewards, and partly because its numerical nature cons the mind into imagining that it can be beaten if you can crack the statistical maths: that if 17 black hasn’t come up for 77 spins, for instance, it is more likely to come up next time. Which of course it is not.
“Fixed odds” means the odds are fixed against you. There is an inbuilt edge of about 2.8 per cent to the house which, over time, cannot be beaten. The canny punter can win by betting on sports, and even blackjack, but no one can beat the odds at roulette.
By churning out a spin, and the powerful psychochemical reaction each one produces every 20-30 seconds, the machines exponentially heighten the addictivity. This is why, in that article, I called them the crack cocaine of gambling. Although the phrase has become a cliche as opposition to FOBTs has increased, not everyone accepts it as a facile truth. Whittingdale for one disputes it.
“People talk of [FOBT machines] being the crack cocaine of gambling,” he told a gaming industry conference in 2013. “I’m not so sure they’ve even the cannabis of gambling.”
On this latter point we do agree. They do not make users mellow or giggly. No one who has just blown a fortnight’s benefits in half an hour gets the munchies. The only craving they induce is for more of the same. As any inner-city betting shop manager will tell you, usage makes make people angry, aggressive and often violent. Which sounds rather more like crack than weed to me.
Where Whittingdale came by his insight into the harmlessness of FOBTs is a mystery. Since there is no evidence (as there is with certain other parliamentary supporters) of any close connection to the bookmaking industry, presumably it derives from nothing more sinister than his libertarian instincts.
Yet if libertarianism’s core is the belief that everyone is entitled to go to hell in the manner of their own choosing, proselytising FOBTs suggests a more malevolent creed. It is actively directing people towards a route to hell they might otherwise never have located, and deliberately preying on vulnerability to increase the sum of human misery.
These days, I do not go into bookmakers’ shops. The sight of the poor digging themselves into deeper trouble is too depressing, and accepting myself for a weak sinner, I know where a humble fiver on Trap 4 in a dog race at Monmore Green might lead. In the cause of educating John Whittingdale, I will make an exception. His musical tastes are for heavy metal and punk, so he may not appreciate mawkish folk. But I make that reciprocal offer in the words of Ralph McTell. Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London, Secretary of State, and I’ll show you something to make you change your mind.