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Coughing up cash

Capitalism creates much that's obscene. At times, it generates hilarity born of despair. And an example of the latter was the pursuit of a big win on the Who Wants to be a Millionaire? gameshow made by Celador, and subsequent trial and conviction of the jackpot “winner”, army major Charles Ingram and two accomplices.

In a world of class ownership of the means of living, with people desperate to acquire money because everything costs, bizarre behaviour that causes observers to remark “I didn't know whether to laugh or cry” isn't infrequent. From ludicrous get-rich-quick spam to business adverts tattooed on foreheads, people are driven to do whatever it takes to obtain cash.

Charles and his wife Diana owed around £50,000 in loans and credit card payments, while Tecwen Whittock, teacher of business studies at a South Wales college, had a £100,000 mortgage, spent £40,000 on private education for three of his children, and owed around £40,000 (£20,000 on a single credit card bill). Whittock had been in contact with the Ingrams before any of them appeared on the quiz show.

Laughs at the major's expense from this tragicomic attempt to win big came from him revealing how he sat at home eagerly practising “Fastest Finger First” on a mock-up keypad resting on his knee. How he was reduced to tears in court on hearing a barrister's humiliating question put to a Celador employee about his frisking after the show: “Did you search his privates?”. But above all, the repeated playing in court of Ingram's performance recorded on September 10, 2001, “assisted” by Tecwen Whittock's nineteen “strategically placed coughs”.

Some may be able to cheat the system ...

Ingram had struggled the previous day, losing two lifelines to win £4,000, but lack of time caused him to become a “rollover” contestant, meaning Ingram and Whittock were then both present the next evening, enabling a plan to cheat to be carried out. Ingram would read aloud the four possible answers to each question, and Whittock sitting close behind would cough immediately after hearing the correct one.

This crude scheme, perhaps helped by vibrating pagers taped to Whittock's body, was jeopardised by Ingram's enthusiasm to answer question 14 unaided. For £500,000, Chris Tarrant asked “Baron Haussmann is best known for his planning of which city? (A), Rome; (B), Paris; (C), Berlin; or (D), Athens.” Ingram said at once “I think it's Berlin”. And when it seemed Ingram was going to give this as his “final answer”, because Haussmann was a “more German name”, an anxious Whittock resorted to combining a cough with the warning “No!”, which when first played to those in court caused roars of laughter. This warning, followed by more coughs after Ingram twice mentioned Paris while hunting for the correct answer, got him through to the final £1,000,000 question.

The public got their chance to chortle at what the jury saw and heard thanks to a documentary, Millionaire: A Major Fraud, on April 21, which explored the trial and screened the major's “winning” run. Sadly, most viewers were actually laughing at themselves, as the joke's on them. They may not have conspired to obtain money with secreted pagers and coded coughs, but they have been partners in a crime against themselves, which is not voting to escape from class domination, exploitation and exclusion, a game which also compels them to chase after money. In this respect, judge Geoffrey Rivlin was wrong to call the trial a “most unusual and exceptional case”.

... but who's really making a monkey of who?

Game show presenter Chris Tarrant called the coughing for cash “very cynical” and “hugely insulting to the hundreds and hundreds of other contestants who have come on the show, just hoping for much smaller amounts of money”. But what of the cynicism of Celador profiting from millions of premium rate phone calls from people desperate to get on the gameshow to escape from the insult of poverty and deprivation in a supposedly civilised society? What of the documentary, sold to broadcasters worldwide, cynically cashing in on this attempted fraud and which no doubt is hoped to boost the quiz show's flagging ratings?

Another Tarrant comment was, “It's unthink-able anyone should think they could go home with the biggest prize of all dishonestly.” What of capitalists going home to luxurious residences, living off vast profits, interest payments and property rents thanks to owning the biggest prize of all, productive assets, which is dishonestly legal thanks to their own system's laws?

The worst scam of all, that capitalists and their political stooges will never cough to, is that people would be far better off with real socialism, production of goods and services to meet needs, and free access. When it comes to winning the biggest prize for humankind, and you're faced with those critical 50/50 choices, don't ask the audience looking down on you. Don't phone a friend addicted to money. Choose socialism, and make it the final answer.