Tom Watson Q & A: Reforging the relationship

By Tim Poole

This article was originally published in the May/June edition of Gambling Insider magazine: Gambling Insider assesses the early progress made by the Betting & Gaming Council as it bids to unify the voice of UK gambling, with even long-time industry critic Tom Watson impressed with the association.

It's human nature to complain. In the UK, we’re all prone to a good moan and there are certain staples we can fall back on when our very British instincts to complain kick in. There’s the weather, a guaranteed winner, either “typically British” or “too hot;” there’s public transport, something else we can never fail to bemoan; then there’s the Government, local councils and so on. The reason these topics are so good to vent about, so to speak, is we rarely see any concrete, tangible improvements to reduce our frustrations. And if we do, as the British public absolutely loves to do, we’ll find some aspect of the new improvements to highlight for criticism.

Unfortunately, this concept applies just as heavily to the UK gambling industry, where there’s been plenty of remonstrating over the past few years – both incoming and outgoing. Simultaneously, the public, media and politicians have lambasted the sector to no end, while those in the industry have equally expressed their frustrations with these external pressures. Internally, a long-standing issue has been the lack of unity within gambling and the subsequent lack of a strong, independent voice when facing up to these external forces.

But the good and bad news is finally we may be seeing some concrete, tangible progress in this regard. It’s bad for those who want to complain, of course, but it’s good in every other way imaginable. Indeed, in November 2019 the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC) was formed, bringing together what were previously the Remote Gambling Association and the Association of British Bookmakers. Under the stewardship of CEO Michael Dugher and Chair Brigid Simmonds, the BGC has set about representing the gaming industry with a more unified voice, embarking on a mission of bringing the industry’s disparate interests together and presenting a united front to outside stakeholders. In other words, one less thing to complain about.

So far, its progress has been resounding. Several examples have highlighted a strong and swift response from the Council, providing a more satisfying balance to what was previously a one-sided narrative in the UK. That’s not to say the public mood has even been remotely shifted, nor the UK Government suddenly reminded of the benefits the industry’s taxable revenue brings to the Exchequer. But the BGC, to date, has reacted authoritatively on numerous issues, being particularly vocal when refuting derogatory reporting of the sector and with its political lobbying.

Just six days after its official formation, the Council announced the introduction of an Anonymous Player Awareness System on gaming machines in betting shops. This system uses a real-time algorithm for gaming terminals and was implemented in UK shops to enforce a cooling-off period after indications of harmful play; staff members are also alerted by the system if certain problem gambling behaviour indicators are shown. On the cooling-off measures, launched during Responsible Gaming Week (good timing can only enhance good press), then Interim CEO Wes Himes said he was “convinced the approach can help restore public trust.”

Its next notable move, however, was even more effective. During the Third Round of the English FA Cup earlier this football season, kick-offs were moved to one minute past the hour in honour of a mental health campaign. This created a unique set of circumstances whereby a large selection of games were only broadcast on betting sites – as opposed to free-to-air television, which only showed a handful of matches. Cue a media storm in a teacup, with Bet365 in particular receiving severe media scrutiny. National newspapers were particularly outraged that operators were ‘exploiting’ the fact people were promoting mental health awareness to boost their product – a product known to have negative mental health connotations.

But the BGC stepped in, swatting the story like a fly, and the media attention quickly dispersed. The story in itself was a non-story – the streaming rights deal had been negotiated three years prior, so the ‘news’ in question was not news. In fact, it turned out no bookmaker had exclusivity on these events. Even so, Simmonds came out with a simple statement supported by Bet365, GVC Holdings, Flutter Entertainment, William Hill and Kindred Group. It said: “Our members did not seek exclusivity for the rights to screen FA cup games. They are therefore happy for IMG to offer the rights to screen these games to the Football Association or another appropriate body, so the games can be viewed for free by the public with immediate effect.” Pre-BGC involvement, these same operators would have been unlikely to come together in this fashion – and the scrutiny would likely have lingered.

In January, the BGC followed this episode with a number of straightforward statements that helped further stem the tide of one-sided reporting within the UK. When Claire Murdoch, National Mental Health Director, sent an open letter to the CEOs of GVC, Flutter William Hill, BetFred and Bet365 criticising the industry’s approach to problem gambling, the Council responded. It outlined exactly what the industry has been doing for years to address the matter, inviting Murdoch to meet with the CEOs in question to discuss her concerns. In the past, high-profile figures have simply been allowed to publicly rant about the gambling industry, broadcasting fabricated and unfounded claims. Here, Murdoch continued that trend, speaking as if operators have no responsible gaming measures in place whatsoever. It’s worth noting she did not write any such open letters since the BGC’s response (before the coronavirus pandemic gripped the nation), nor in fact did she accept the request to meet said CEOs.

As a whole, this kind of activity and negative PR has gone on far less since the BGC has begun to set  the record straight. And this was again evident on a smaller but equally important scale during another example in January. A week after the BGC’s response to Murdoch, a report in the Sunday Times claimed betting companies had access to the Learning Records Service database – i.e. that they could target individuals as soon as they turned 18, having all the data required to market to them on hand already. This was quite simply rebutted by the BGC, as the report was based on a set of very weak claims.

Were it any other industry, media outlets would likely think twice before levelling such accusations without sufficient proof. But, while in the past they've gotten away with just that time and again, the betting industry was this time able to stand up to what could only be described as slanderous allegations – thanks to the BGC. Although the coronavirus headlines have naturally deterred mainstream media outlets from their usual bookie-bashing, the BGC’s aid in shifting this narrative has already made a difference.

Where the Council may face a difficult challenge, though, is in the political arena. In the US, American Gaming Association (AGA) CEO Bill Miller has continuously spoken of the need to turn “public sentiment into political muscle”, with the AGA representing US gaming’s interests skillfully and with a great degree of success. And yet, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, that public sentiment is dearly lacking.

The BGC is attempting to change this. Most recently, it lobbied for the retail gambling sector to be included in the Government’s care package during the COVID-19 pandemic. This lobbying was initially unsuccessful and the BGC responded in kind, writing an open letter to the Chancellor, questioning why gambling was classified as a “financial service” rather than a “leisure activity.” If the Government, at such a serious time, was looking to score a political victory over the gambling industry while sacrificing its citizens’ jobs en masse, the BGC was sure to at least raise the issue publicly. Cue a U-turn from the Government, which duly included the retail gambling sector in its package, justifying the BGC's work.

With such early results, along with the Virtual Grand National raising £2.6m ($3.2m) for the NHS thanks to a BGC initiative and the voluntary recent ban on TV and radio advertising during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s been an encouraging opening salvo from the Council, even going as far as impressing Tom Watson – a heavy previous critic of the gambling industry. Watson is the former Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and strong advocate of gambling regulation in the UK. Yet even he can only stop and praise the BGC, as he tells Gambling Insider: “I’m never complacent about things but I’ve been impressed with the engagement from the BGC. They’re pretty good at being the grown up voice for the sector already. This is a very good start but only time will tell if the organisation can convince the industry to speak with one voice.”

The politician was equally as puzzled as the BGC about the UK Government’s lack of aid for the industry. The Government’s decision excluded the gambling industry from its plans for a 100% 12-month business rate holiday. In light of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer pledged the relief to all companies within the "retail, hospitality or leisure sector". However, this originally excluded casinos, bingo halls and betting shops, which were classified as financial services.

"It seems harsh to specifically remove community betting shops and bingo halls from the support package announced by the Government," explains Watson. "Very often these venues are staffed by local people at the centre of their communities and they are the ones that will lose out. They’ve [the BGC] already made their case well.

"Why treat nightclubs preferentially to bingo clubs? It doesn’t make sense to me, though I readily accept the Government has a lot on its plate and this is not a national priority.”

The BGC can certainly claim at least some of the credit for persuading the Government to rethink its decision. But, moving forward, one key long-term issue lurks on the horizon, even if it has been inevitably delayed by the coronavirus pandemic: online stake limits. William Hill CEO Ulrik Bengtsson and GVC Holdings CEO Kenny Alexander have this year told Gambling Insider they feel there will be a more “sensible and evidence-based approach” from the Government than with past regulation.

Watson, for his part, agrees that following the same pattern as before may not be an appropriate solution. He says: “I think the BGC must gather the evidence, decide what reforms are needed and make their case. Applying the analogue solutions of the past to digital problems faced currently is obviously not sensible.” But his overall message, a sentiment aided by the BGC’s early progress, is one of palpable encouragement. “Let’s not replay past disasters and focus on the future,” he concludes, with a sense of long-term hope. “Engage, listen, reform; then the relationship can be reforged.”

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