The Lottery – as obscene as any banker’s bonus


And finally, here was an item of news to bring a smile to the nation’s lips after a succession of stories about falling incomes, rising costs of living, inflation and spiralling unemployment. Someone had just been awarded a huge unearned bonus of over £101 million. The word “bonus” was not, of course, used. Had the money been paid to a banker or chief executive, it would have been reported at the business end of the news, accomied by furrowed brows and disapproving soundbites.

Instead, it was the lottery win by an “ordinary couple”, and we were all meant to feel a little bit warmer inside. The newscasters put on the sickly smiles and gurgling tones usually reserved for stories about baby pandas. There was the obligatory champagne shot, interviews with the stunned winners, the story of how they bought the winning ticket, a discussion of how they would spend their millions.

If you had the niggling sense that you were being manipulated by these reports, you were right. There has never been a moral scam quite as shameless as the National Lottery. Every carefully stage-managed report of a win is essentially another peak-time advertisement. This week’s good news for EuroMillions winners Dave and Angela Dawes will feed an alluring fantasy for millions of people across the country. Even more money will be spent by those who want to escape from their circumstances – that is, by those who can least afford it.

The National Lottery, a shrine of longing at the centre of British life, is not quite the harmless fun which people like to claim. It turns Cameron’s arguments for the “something for something society” into yet another hollow phrase uttered by politicians. Its reassuring rhythm of Lottos, Lucky Dips and Thunderballs, offering families fleeting moments of hope twice a week, refutes the old-fashioned idea that the gambling habit is harmful.

The BBC is assiduous in its promotion of the state-sponsored casino, not only through programmes dedicated to the draw, but through its fantasy-feeding news bulletins. Buy enough tickets, the message goes, and your life can be magically transformed. And it is all for good causes! The propaganda is relentless. “It could be you” used to be its selling slogan; now it’s “What would you do?”

The headline stories tell of large parts of the population stuck in their lives, alienated from society, dogged by a sense of powerlessness when it comes to improving their futures. The story of an occasional mind-boggling win on the lottery is supposed to show a different, brighter side of life. In reality, there is a connection between the news bulletins’ gloomy lead items and the sugared pill of fake hope they provide at the end.

Independent, 14  October 2011