Public Image – What can the gambling industry do to improve its reputation?

David Clifton is interviewed by G3 Magazine in an article entitled “Public Image: What can the industry do to improve its reputation?”.

The subtitle to that article reads as follows:

The UK gambling industry continues to suffer a bad press despite the steps it has taken to limit gambling addiction and try to protect the safety of its players. While the industry has made meaningful and robust changes to the way it addresses problem gambling, these changes arguably have not received as much coverage as they deserve.

Posing the following questions, the article says:

…. what else can the industry do to ensure a fair debate on gambling in the media? Will the steps taken by the industry ever ever be enough for those opposed to gambling? Is some of the negative press justified? Is the industry really doing enough? Is the only way to fix the industry’s image through legislation that will reduce gambling related harm?

To find out we talked to David Clifton, Matt Zarb-Cousin, Eduards Jacubovs and Brian Hatch, all of whom look at the issue from different aspects and offer their own unique insights. David Clifton is widely recognised as one of the UK’s most experienced specialists in gambling law. Matt Zarb-Cousin is spokesperson for Clean Up Gambling. Eduards Jacubovs is Head of Responsible Gambling at Betsson and Brian Hatch is creator of The Addicted Gambler’s Podcast.

We have provided the above links to each of the separate interviews with the above-named persons. However, you can download below:

You can also read below David’s answers (as published) to the questions posed to him within the interview:

The criticism of the gambling industry in the mainstream media became particularly acute during lockdown?  Why was that?

DC: A substantial reason why criticism in mainstream media became particularly acute during lockdown can be attributed to the doomsayers who predicted that, with so many people furloughed at home supposedly with nothing better to do, there would be a massive increase not only in gambling activity per se but also in problem gambling rates. Neither turned out to be the case.

Recent Gambling Commission statistics show that, whilst there was a small increase in online gambling participation over the period of Covid-19 restrictions in Great Britain, overall participation in gambling declined. Crucially, the overall problem gambling rate has remained “statistically stable” (to quote the Commission) at 0.4% of the adult population, whilst the moderate risk rate has “decreased significantly” to 0.7% (in the year to June 2021) compared with 1.4% (in the year to June 2020).

That is particularly worthy of note given that recent research has shown that most online gambling in Great Britain now takes place via mobile phones at home.

Why do you think that gambling gets such a bad press especially now?

DC: As has been proved by well-publicised stories of personal tragedy related to disordered gambling, the potential for participants in gambling (particularly when conducted online) to suffer harm unless effective player protection measures are implemented by operators presents an understandable area of concern.

Recent evidence that some highly engaged gamblers who play a range of products are now likely to spend more time and money gambling has compounded that concern. However, one can’t help but conclude that some of the criticisms of the industry presently being made by a vocal minority (including parliamentarians, public health lobbyists and religious leaders) go further than that and stem not from a solid evidence base but instead from firmly-held moral convictions, amounting instead to an attack on the activity of gambling itself.

With a Government White Paper on reform of Great Britain’s gambling legislation expected by the end of this year, it is these criticisms that have attracted greater attention in certain sections of the national media.

The industry has taken many steps to improve player protection measures. Yet we seem to hear very little about them outside of the specialised gambling media. Why is that?

DC: It has often been said that “bad news sells better than good news”. In support of this, research findings have proved the existence of a ‘negativity bias’, stemming from people’s hunger to read and remember bad news stories rather than neutral or positive stories. The conditioning of journalists and editors to reflect this in their publications may well explain why good news stories such as undoubted improvements in player protection measures have not been thought to make compelling headlines.

The Culture Secretary has launched a major and wide-ranging review of gambling laws. What steps can the industry take in the public arena to prevent government overreach? What steps can the industry take to try and get a more balanced debate in the media?

DC: This represents a considerable challenge for the industry, given that the Government Review is so wide-ranging. However, one of the key objectives behind that Review is to “ensure there is an appropriate balance between consumer freedoms and choice on the one hand, and prevention of harm to vulnerable groups and wider communities on the other”. Emphasis by the industry on achieving that balance should, in theory, lead to a more balanced debate in the media.

However, the industry also needs to bear in mind that over 80% of those aged 16 and over believe there are too many opportunities for gambling nowadays, 75% think gambling is dangerous for family life, less than 30% think that gambling in Great Britain is conducted fairly and can be trusted and only 15% consider that, on balance, gambling is good for society.

All of these factors need to be very carefully taken into account when considering how best to advance the industry’s cause. Greater public education on the potential consequences of over-regulation, including the threat posed by the illegal online gambling black market might be a good place to start.

Has the industry really shown enough commitment to rein in disordered gambling?

DC: The answer to this question depends on who is assessing the answer. The hardliners in the Gambling-Related Harm APPG clearly think not. More encouragingly, the Gambling Commission has acknowledged earlier this year that “progress is being made in reducing gambling-related harms” although it accompanied this comment with a warning that this “is not a short term project with easy fixes”.

Taking into account the now longstanding statistically stable problem gambling rates in Great Britain, it would considerably assist the industry if the regulator was to articulate (a) what level of reduction it wants to see in the number of people affected by problem gambling, (b) over what period of time this should occur and (c) what would indicate good progress – each of which were recommendations made by the National Audit Office in February last year.

Is some of the bad press deserved?

DC: It would be impossible to contend that none of the bad press has been deserved, especially in cases where systemic failures in terms of social responsibility obligations have been proven to exist. That said, many of the examples of inadequate consumer protection upon which prominent media articles and TV and radio programmes have been based over the last year or so occurred up to five or six years ago. That was before some very significant player protection improvements were introduced or, for that matter, required by the Gambling Commission.

As a result, I think it fair to say that the reputation of some within the industry has suffered from its historic behaviour being judged by the standards of today.

Do you think that public awareness campaigns such as the safer gambling Bet Regret Campaign and Safer Gambling Week help improve the image of gambling?  Or do you think that overall the public just sees this as the industry protecting itself?

DC: I fear that public attitudes against gambling have hardened so much in recent years that it will take more than this type of campaign to improve the image of gambling. I believe that part of the reason for that has been a growing public perception over the last three years that there are far too many gambling ads, so much so that even well intended initiatives such as the Bet Regret Campaign and Safer Gambling Week have been regarded by some as a belated damage control exercise by the industry and by many as yet more publicity of gambling being forced upon them.