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Liz Gerard’s Notebook

Gambling addiction, spinning the Budget, dishwasher duty at No 10, the Oscars, picture manipulation and front page of the fortnight…

By Liz Gerard

Liz Gerard’s Notebook

Betting shops: getting them through the doors

Do you like a flutter? Do you play the National Lottery? Or put a couple of quid each way on the Grand National perhaps? Or are you more seriously into the horses? Follow the form guides, have a favourite tipster?

If so, you’re in numerous company. More than half the country’s adult population gambles – some 24.5 million – although that comes down to around 18m if you take off those who play only the lottery. Britain’s gambling industry is one of the biggest in the world, generating a profit of £14.2bn in 2022. A lot of livelihoods depend on it.

But it can also be dangerous. Gambling ruins lives – and even ends them, with up to 500 suicides a year attributed to gambling addiction. Some two million people either have a problem or are at risk of developing one and a further three million have been harmed by other people’s gambling. Ramifications include homelessness, mental health issues, alcoholism, drug abuse, unemployment, wrecked relationships and crime. All of this costs the country up to £1.8bn a year – and probably more, according to a Public Health England study of the “harms” caused by gambling, published in January last year.

Yes, we know all that. But we can’t have a nanny state. People must be trusted to make their own risk assessments, to spend their money as they choose. We can warn them – “when the fun stops, stop”, “take time to think” – but adults must be treated like adults. And that £14.2bn is so tantalising.

The Cheltenham Festival: one of the grand set-piece events of the social / tabloid calendar.

A big chunk of that money will be generated this week, thanks to the Cheltenham Festival, one of the grand set-piece events of the social / tabloid calendar. The redtops started running their daily supplements at the weekend. The Times, Express and Mail joined them from the opening day on Tuesday (when the Daily Record offered its readers two), and once the racing had started, the Guardian, Telegraph and Times all turned to Cheltenham for their main image. Meanwhile, every tabloid has been running puffs at the top of the front – they can fill up to half the page for the redtops. And every one of those puffs has offered a free bet, be it for £2 or £5, with Paddy Power, William Hill or Coral.

Many of those “free” bets come with the caveat “in shop”.

There’s nothing new about any of this. It’s been like this for decades. But that doesn’t make it right. Many of those “free” bets come with the caveat “in shop”. In other words, you have to walk into the bookies to take advantage of them. And once you’re there, you might just place a second or third or fourth bet, go through the card perhaps. And have a punt on the football. And while you’re waiting, you might put some loose change into the slot machine – or the fixed odds betting terminal, to give it its formal name.

Time was, you could blow £100 on a single spin. But there was a general waking up in the early years of this century and for the past five years, the maximum stake has been set at £2 (a figure advocated, to its credit, by UKIP). Even so, the average person playing the machine will come away £5 poorer after just three minutes, and one in ten will be £60 light.

At least when you back a horse you can study its form, consider the jockey, the trainer, the going. You might have a chance of winning, and the odds will be calculated based on the hopes of every horse in the race and how many people think it might win. Slot machines are set so that between 70 and 80% of the money that goes into them stays in them until the bookie empties it at night. (If they still do that. It’s probably all done by card now.) There was, and still is, a reason that these machines were called one-armed bandits. They are highly addictive, they involve no element of skill, and the odds are hugely stacked to ensure that the vast majority of players lose. That is why Paddy and William and Joe want you in their shops.

Newspapers will always make a fuss about big sporting occasions – the World Cup, Wimbledon, the Olympics – they know readers care and get swept up in the event. But with football, tennis, rugby, athletics, it is entirely about the sport. With Cheltenham, Aintree, Ascot, Epsom, it’s about the betting. There are exceptions, of course: when you get wonderful horses like Red Rum or Desert Orchid or Shergar. Or legendary jockeys like Frankie Dettori going through the card at Ascot. Or trainers with the golden touch – this week it’s all about Willie Mullins.

Not, in the Sun’s eyes, because of his phenomenal sporting record, but because he makes life difficult for the bookmakers. As predicted, his State Man duly won the Champion Hurdle on the first day of the meeting and Lossiemouth followed in the next race – at 2/5 and 8/13 respectively. These are the sorts of odds embraced by serious gamblers, not the 25/1 shots favoured by the once-a-year Grand National punters.

Horseracing is part spectacle, part fashion show, but mostly gambling. Nothing’s going to change that. But what is worrying is the “free bet” (or two – because there is often one courtesy of the paper and another courtesy of the accompanying ad) that is the central selling point of those puffs and those supplements. A free bet worth two quid or a fiver is hardly going to make a difference to the veteran racegoer or entice them to buy one paper over another (especially as just about everyone is offering one), but it could attract a novice who thinks, “Why not have a go?” Which might be harmless. Or might be the first step on a road to disaster.

Just imagine papers plastering the tops of their front pages with offers of a free whisky, a free cigarette, a free spliff. I know I sound like an old spoilsport. But I just think it’s wrong.

Budget spin

"Tricky philosophical decisions."

I don’t think I’m sticking my neck out to say that things aren’t going exactly smoothly for the Conservatives. So, papers that would like to see them continue in government have to make tricky philosophical decisions – such as should they be loyal supporters, always looking on the bright side, or candid friends, willing to point out where things might be improved?

Last week, most took the latter approach in their response to Jeremy Hunt’s Budget and the Resolution Foundation’s analysis the next day, suggesting that many pensioners would be £1,000 worse off next year than this. It was, of course, an open goal for the Mirror – with “Pension pinchers” making its tenth “everything is awful under the Tories” splash of the year.

" open goal for the Mirror..."

The Telegraph had a single on the front, the Sun an inside page lead “8m OAPs lose £1k a year”. The Times and Mail led their day two spreads with similar headlines on pensioners being the big / biggest Budget losers and the Mail accompanied that with a leader saying that politicians overlooked pensioner power at the ballot box at their peril.

But there is one paper above all others that speaks to an elderly readership. Twenty-five splashes on pensions and the triple lock over the past three years, plus many others relevant to people living on fixed incomes – from the price of fruit to interest rates on savings – attest to the fact. As do dozens more on Alzheimer’s research, care home costs and Esther Rantzen’s campaign on assisted dying.

There is one paper above all others that speaks to an elderly readership.

So how did the Express react to its readers being made worse off by a Budget it had hailed the previous day as “turbo-charging” a Britain ready for take-off?

Turbo-charging... but not necessarily for Express readers.

Like the Mail and Times, it put pensions at the heart of its inside spread. With the headline “‘Pensioners have been prioritised’…Hunt hits back at claims older voters have lost out”. The Chancellor had, according to Sam Lister, insisted that the government had done an “enormous amount” for pensioners. But she then went on to list the criticisms and the figures produced by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Resolution Foundation. Alongside was a commentary by Dennis Reed, who accused Hunt of a “stunning miscalculation” in failing to mention older people or recognise that they won’t benefit from the reduction in national insurance. There was a further comment piece by Harvey Jones under a photograph of Hunt saying he may have cut NI by 2p, but taxation was still at its highest level since the war.

The coverage was critical. But the headline, picture and lead intro told a completely different story.

Taken as a whole, the coverage was critical. But that headline, picture and lead intro told a completely different story. One that adds to the perception that when it has to choose whose interests to serve first, the Express puts the Conservative party ahead of its readers.

Just the two...

Which brings us to a quick update on the “Rishi promising” front. Just the two in the past fortnight – beating the poison of extremism and getting tough with the workshy. But there were three Budget boosts and a reminder that Brexit is a great success story worth billions. Do they count? Meanwhile, the migration tally has grown by five in just two weeks.

Dishwasher spin

There may be trouble ahead...

The prime minister has had a busy couple of weeks, what with the Budget, the totally expected Lee Anderson defection to Reform and the “mob rule” lecture at the lectern outside No 10. All of which naturally found their way into the news pages. But the event that captured the imagination of the sketch writers and features editors was the sit-down with his wife and Grazia magazine. Notably, the insights into his dishwasher and bedmaking regimes. You might well ask what it says about a man that he publicly disses his wife’s domestic abilities. Loyalty anyone?

The Mail, never shy of fomenting a bit of strife out of apparent harmony, produced a spread on “chore wars” and how resentment grew between couples over their perceptions of whether their other halves were pulling their weight. The challenge was to set two couples to record how their feelings towards their partner veered between love, guilt, irritation, exasperation and contempt, depending on who was doing what. Gosh!

Over at the Times, Tom Whipple was pressed into service for one of his whimsical looks at the science of it all. Did Sunak have a point? Was there a “correct” way to load a dishwasher? Yes there was, and here was the explanation. It’s about tessellation without touching, about not spooning the spoons. Delightful. Meanwhile Adrian Chiles came to similar conclusions in his piece for the Sun on the dishwasher tablets of stone.

One of the key functions of a newspaper is to entertain as well as to inform. Too many think that can be achieved by loading pages with celebrity gossip for a bit of “light relief”. With his dishwasher dissing, Sunak unwittingly opened the door to a far more imaginative and satisfying way to fulfil that brief.

Some imaginative and satisfying light relief.

Awards season continues

Still making the cover, despite not winning...

Looking at the Bafta coverage last time, I felt for the Sun in having backed Margot Robbie for the best actress award only to see it go to Emma Stone. One of the best lessons in life is to learn from others’ mistakes to avoid making them yourself. The Mail on Sunday was sort of paying attention. For there at the top of the front was “Hollywood’s golden girl” - “only in You” (three weeks after she’d been in the Sun’s Fabulous). Ooops!

But then it rather cleverly hedged its bets with the magazine cover. First there was a piece of design genius taking a photograph of her in her Baftas outfit and adding some golden lighting to make her look like an Oscar statuette. Then there was the word OSCAR in capitals. But the surrounding tag line started “Who needs an…” So where it at first looked as though the Mail had gone the whole hog on predicting that she’d win, it could, with hindsight, be seen as an expectation that she wouldn’t (and she didn’t). Clever stuff.

Post-awards coverage was much as expected – more attention for Cillian Murphy than at the Baftas, a rather curtailed array of frocks, several “I was the poor man / girl at the rich people’s after parties” essays. Everyone loved Ryan Gosling, nobody was surprised about much else. The Telegraph came up with a rather good supplement, but most were far more engaged by Kate and that photograph. Oddest coverage of the Oscars came from the Express (again), which ran the awards on pages 10 and 11 and then returned four pages later with a second spread on the gowns. Illogical flat-planning. I don’t think the sky would have fallen in had the leader and Feltz pages moved back a step from 12 and 13 to allow the two Oscars spreads to sit together.

"A rather good supplement."

Palace photo – much ado about not a lot?

I suppose we can’t ignore that photoshop fail. Was it really so important that it led the 6am bulletin on Radio 4’s Today programme and was still top of the bill for BBC1’s News at Ten? Possibly, if the palaces were shown to be distributing demonstrably fake information (as opposed to the guff the media swallows daily). Maybe, had the “manipulation” of the photograph been shown to have superimposed a smiling healthy princess on to the body of a gaunt woman in obvious pain. But nobody was suggesting that either was the case. The picture agencies’ magic manipulation-spotting gizmos had identified rather more modest fiddling – a misplaced cardigan cuff and some fuzzy fingers.

"The Telegraph confronted the issue head on."

Even so, the effusive “picture of health” headlines trumpeting an end to nasty social media conspiracy theories looked a bit premature. The Telegraph confronted the issue head on. Without stronger evidence of deliberate misinformation, I wouldn’t have made it the splash of a serious paper. But at least it told the story, not the PR, while the Mirror and Sun were left scuttling to catch up and update the photoshopping for their later editions.

"Left scuttling to catch up and update the photoshopping for their later editions."

I was left wondering about the way the picture continued to appear all over the place after the (very rare) “kill” notices were issued. Press Gazette noted that the photograph it published was taken from the Kensington Palace Instagram post. But what about the fees for the images used everywhere else? Will AP et al still expect to be paid for a picture it told people not to publish. If so, aren’t they having their cake and eating it? And if not, does that mean the press will have had two days’ (at least) free use of a premium image that they were told to spike?

For the story isn’t fading away. It was the splash again in the Mirror, Mail, Sun, Metro and Star on Tuesday, plus dozens of pages inside, and still more yesterday. We don’t have enough royals to go round, we love them, but we must be able to trust them. This could become a constitutional crisis. Even Sarah Vine took a break from attacking Haz and Meg to warn Will and Kate that they are in danger of “drowning in a quagmire of their own making”. And those social media types are really nasty.

"The mainstream papers’ internet incarnations can be just as querulous."

But it’s not only amateur conspiracy theorists who can be nasty online. The mainstream papers’ internet incarnations can be just as querulous. It was, of course, inevitable that Harry and Meghan would be pulled into this controversy. Someone supposedly close to them told the New York Times’s Page Six celebrity website that there would have been far less understanding had it been the Sussexes who had issued a doctored photograph. “If Harry and Meghan had ever encountered the same issue, they would have been annihilated. The same rules don’t apply to both couples. This isn’t a mistake Meghan would ever make.” Back came author Angela Levin to say, “The Sussexes’ camp are huge hypocrites. A tree was doctored in their photograph to create a special backdrop so how dare their camp say anything about Catherine’s?”

A tree? According to the Mail, Sun and Telegraph websites, the Oscar-nominated photographer Misan Harriman transplanted a tree into a meadow for his famous shot of Harry and Meghan announcing they were expecting Lilibet. He had “admitted” as much in a podcast that had now “resurfaced” and said, “It’s amazing what you can do with technology.” Except if you listen to the podcast, the amazing technology he was talking about was the ability to take a photograph from miles away using a megapixel iPad (this was during the pandemic). He doesn’t “admit” to photoshopping a tree or to the couple being in a meadow. That is put to him by the interviewer. He replies that the couple were in their garden. To be fair, he doesn’t explicitly deny the interviewer’s assertion either. But he was sufficiently concerned about the websites’ reports yesterday to issue a small video in which he says they are wrong and to seek retractions and apologies from all three publishers and their reporters. He also released the original (colour) photograph – something everyone has been pressing the Waleses to do with that Mothers’ Day shot.

Not something the Waleses have done yet.

Perhaps this could have been avoided if the Sun, Mail and Telegraph journalists had put the allegation to Harriman and given him a right of reply before publishing. As one royal watcher put it to me: “Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to work?” Er, yes.

But there’s no stopping this bandwagon. Looking for what the Sun website had written on “treegate”, I came across another story published at teatime last night. This is the headline:

"Complete and utter madness."

What do you think that means? That the Sussexes have said something about the Kate picture furore? That might be the logical interpretation. But no. This was about the comments Page Six had attributed to “sources close to the couple”. They had “hit back with a scathing statement from their Archewell Foundation”. And here is that statement in its entirety: “With respect to Page Six, that did not come from us.”

We have now reached the complete and utter madness that the website attached to what for decades was our best-selling newspaper runs a headline saying a couple have “broken their silence” when the substance of that breach of silence is to say that, actually, they hadn’t broken their silence.

As I said earlier, those online types are really nasty. And untrustworthy. And sometimes plain bonkers.

Front page of the fortnight

"An excellent story."

Here’s Tuesday’s Guardian with an astonishing outburst from the Conservatives’ biggest donor, a businessman called Richard Hester who has given the party £10m in the past year. The headline tells you almost all you need to know.

It’s not a particularly elegant page – if the criterion for this slot were appearance without regard to journalistic rigour, it would go to the Express’s Budget front – but it is an excellent story. And the Guardian’s approach to it bears comparison with that of the Mail.

To be fair, these remarks were apparently made “several years ago”. But even so… The Mail put the story on page 14 as a single column. Maybe it didn’t think that what this man had to say was that big a deal. He insisted he was not a racist – even though he thought it a good idea to call together all his “foreign” workers to tell them he wasn’t racist and even though he admitted “we take the piss out of the fact that all our Chinese girls sit together in Asian corner” – and so that was apparently an end to the matter. No suggestion, for example, that the Conservatives should return his money.

No suggestion that the Conservatives should return his money.

Yesterday the Guardian was back with a follow-up splash on Downing Street decreeing that Hester’s reported remarks were indeed racist (finally following Kemi Badenoch’s Twitter lead after hours of shilly-shallying). The Mail promoted the story to page 12, giving it the whole page, most of it a commentary by Jonathan Aitken praising his “warm, effervescent friend” Diane. The mini italics biog at the end says, “The Reverend Jonathan Aitken is a former Conservative minister”. Well, there’s a bit more to him than that – as the Guardian could explain. But they had to find someone right of centre not only willing to be kind to Ms Abbott, but also willing to be so in the Mail. That can’t have been easy.

The page had a lot of what Hester had said in 2019, a lot of what everyone had said about Hester on Tuesday, and a lot of what Aitken had to say about Abbott. But nothing at all about that £10m and what should or should not happen to it. Nothing about what accepting the money might say about the Tory party and how it might or might not be being influenced by someone with these “wrong” views. Remember, this wasn’t just any old donor – he was the party’s most generous benefactor, a man whose Phoenix Partnership runs IT systems for the NHS and, as such, is presumably in line for some of the £3.4bn modernisation contracts promised in the Budget.

A big story elsewhere...

This morning, with the Guardian, Mirror, Independent and i all splashing on the story, the Mail finally addresses the question in a spread on which the main headline is “Rishi won’t return ‘racist donor’ cash”. It reports all the people, including the leader of the Scottish Tories and the Conservative mayor of Birmingham, who say he should. It notes that “Diane” (not Abbott? We’re suddenly very friendly towards a woman we’ve reviled for years) tried without success 40 times to catch the Speaker’s eye in a debate that was actually about her. Quentin Letts is given centre stage for yet another sketch finding fault with Starmer. But there is no leader column, no opinion on those donations.

From which we must conclude that it’s all right for the Conservatives to accept £10m from a man who wants to shoot a black MP and lumps all his “foreign” workers together.

It was not all right, however, for Labour to accept £1.5m from a man concerned about climate change...

It was not all right, however, for Labour to accept £1.5m from a man concerned about climate change. If you cast your mind back less than a year, you might recall that terrible scandal. There were splashes, spreads, opinion columns, leaders. Starmer should have returned the money to Dale Vince, who had also supported Just Stop Oil protesters. Accepting the donation told us so much about where his real sympathies and loyalties lay. His party was in the pocket of the eco-mob. They were shaping Labour policy.

Which, I guess, takes us back to where we started: horses for courses.

Liz Gerard’s Notebook is a fortnightly column published in the InPubWeekly newsletter. To be added to the mailing list, enter your email address here.