In this post, I interview Mike Smithson, the chief editor, creator and owner of PolticalBetting, a website which has an Alexa Ranking of 192K, has launched the careers of several journalists and is used as a bible for many political gamblers. I hope you enjoy it, and please visit his site.
Who are you, what is your background and how did come to run PoliticalBetting.com?
Well, I’m a former journalist and I worked for the BBC for a long period. And I worked for a period in parliament. I am quite old, I turn 72 next month. I then moved on to other things, I was development director at several universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, and I retired from all of that in 2007.
Since then, I have been running the site on a full-time basis. My background has always been as a journalist and this is a continuation of that I suppose.
I still have my journalistic instincts, and I think that shows. As for me personally, I’m 72, I live in Bedford. I moved to the area for a job in Milton Keynes [around 15 miles from Bedford] and we really like Bedford as a centre and it is very convenient to get to London, Oxford, Cambridge and all over.
How did come to run PoliticalBetting.com?
Well, the story goes, back in 2004, the big thing was the Iraq war, and everyone wanted to know who was going to be the next president of the United States. There was a huge amount of interest because of the Iraq war and a huge amount of betting was taking place on who was going to be the Democratic candidate. I took a bet that Howard Dean, who at the time was the absolute red-hot favourite was not going to do it, and that was my position. For various reasons, I knew people that knew him from Vermont, where he was governor.
They told me, very straightforward “at some stage, Howard Dean will blow himself up. And at the time he was the odds-on favourite, and I wanted to discuss this and communicate this. This was my betting strategy and I was risking a lot of money on it, and indeed that is what happened. He blew up very early on in the primary campaign. I started to get something of an audience on Betfair forums, and as other things came along, people from Pop-Idol and other shows like that would come into our discussions, and interject silly opinions etc.
I got very annoyed with this and thought ‘lets do something different’. My son, who works in tech, suggested setting up my own blog. We got on the phone and I literally bought the domain name ‘politicalbetting.com’ during a phone call. Then I had the process of the technical side, how do I build the site. We got our first content out in mid-March 2004.
And from there, it was partly because the Politics were so interesting at that time, as we moved towards the 2004 Presidential Election, the 2004 London Mayoral Race and it was the year before the 2005 General Election, lots of things were going on. The site had a lot to discuss, there was a lot to bet on, there was a lot happening and the audience grew at an enormous rate. I couldn’t believe I was getting, maybe, 150 views per day and suddenly I was getting several thousand.
That is quite dramatic, and you don’t quite know how that happened. I never appetized it would amount to this, as I simply starting posts on betting forums about why I don’t think ‘such and such’ is going to happen and so on. It worked quite effectively, there was no plan it just happened organically.
As time went on, it was becoming all engaging and I realised that I couldn’t maintain full-time employment and do this, so I took early retirement as it were. I tried to build the capita as a kind of income proposition. You don’t make a lot of money of websites, but you make enough and I make a nice little income now.
How important is it to stay Unbiased and Objective when it comes to political journalism?
I think it is very important, as someone who has worked at the BBC, who always aspire to objectivity, I like to feel that I’ve carried that over. People are very aware of my politics, however, I stood for parliament in Bedfordshire in 1992, I’ve been a county councillor in Bedfordshire, I’ve been a borough councillor in Bedford. So I’ve been in politics and people that I know are aware of my background. I endeavour to be as objective as possible. So to come out with things, especially betting recommendations, people may only think I’m advising things that I want to happen, but that’s not what I do. For instance, I’ll give you an example of my objectivity on the EU Referendum, which was almost 2 years ago. I was never convinced that this was a done deal. The received opinion amongst the intelligentsia was that Remain would win, at the end of the day, and I never bought this, and I never bet on it until 00:54 on the morning that the results were coming in. And when the first result came in
[Sunderland: 61% Leave] I thought wow, I think that Leave is going to win and I started betting myself. Although it was not my view, I am a strong Remainer, but I strongly believed that this was going to happen. I started Tweeting and Blogging about it, and that was my objectivity and I think that is critical.
This week we’ve had the incident in Salisbury. I’m not a conservative but I wrote that I believe that Theresa May had done herself a lot of good in this. I don’t have a lot of support for the woman but taking an objective view she’d done a respectable job in this and it is important to put that forward. But you can use it for something like polling, you can find other data to support those views.
What would you say has been the most exciting election/vote in the last 10 years?
Interestingly, it would have to be the very first one in 2004. George Bush was fighting John Kerry, it was
extraordinarily tight. It was always said that John Kerry went to bed that night believing that he was going to wake up as the next president, but he wasn’t. That was quite sensational because it turned the other way. And of course, you get a massive amount of betting activity taking place. Tens of millions of pounds was being gambled, and that in itself was exciting.
Of course, looking back, the EU Referendum was very tight, and we’ve talked about that, and the 2017 general election a few months ago was sensational, because nobody thought that the Conservatives were going to do anything other than have a huge victory when they lost their majority.
To what extent would you agree with the statement, never trust the polls?
Well, I think that they’re the best source that we’ve got. Sensationalist media will push the opinion that
everyone ‘wants the immigrants out’ or something like that, but when people say that, its rubbish. The polls are at least there as an objective effort, to try and work out through various statistical methodologies to try and work out what people are thinking. You need to look at the polls objectively, ask who is carrying it out and what the lead questions are, but I would certainly believe the polls more than anecdotes anytime.
What would be your number one piece of advice to anyone looking to get into political journalism?
I think you’ve got to start writing about it, trying to show that you have interesting thoughts. There have been a couple of people who have careers which have started from writing posts on Political Betting. So, it is just finding some way, publishing in some form, and just demonstrating your thinking. You’ve got to show that your thinking and analysis is worth reading.
My final question is, who would you describe as your target market?
Well, my target market is anyone who is interested in the political process. You get websites which are Conservative based, Pro-Brexit, Pro- other political parties, but mine aims at all, but those who are very
much informed, who are following events and who are prepared to risk money predicting things.
I think about 90% of my audience is male, 80% is in the UK, but with a sizeable audience in the US, which grows during presidential elections. A high number of them are graduates and so on, and probably in higher social economic groups.