24 January, 2022

CEO special: Uniting the industry

Now tasked with bringing the UK gambling sector together, Betting & Gaming Council CEO Michael Dugher chats to Tim Poole about his many music bands, growing up during a time of political tension and a storied career with the Labour Party

Throughout his life, Michael Dugher has mostly been involved in politics. A former UK Member of Parliament for the Labour Party, politics ultimately provides the crux of Dugher’s story. In his current role as CEO of the Betting & Gaming Council (BGC), plenty of the skills he gained during his political career still prove useful to this day. But, despite that almost-lifelong association with government, Dugher’s other passions have come to the fore in recent years. Firstly, his love of music (his previous job saw him become the CEO of UK Music) and, secondly, a keen interest in sport – and sports betting. Growing up in Doncaster, a big racing region, certainly helped bolster those interests. It also set Dugher on a path that would lead him to his main mission of today: uniting the UK gambling industry.

A political upbringing

“I’m a former politician, that’s what most people would associate me with,” Dugher tells Gambling Insider as we begin our interview. “I was a Member of Parliament for seven years, elected twice – Barnsley East MP. I spent most of that time in Parliament in the Shadow Cabinet; I was latterly the Shadow Minister for DCMS (the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport), which covers our sector now. I chose to stand down in 2017, having really spent 20 years in politics. Before being an MP, I spent most of the previous 10 years in Government; I was a special advisor in a number of different departments. In my last job in Government, I was Chief Spokesman to the Prime Minister from 2008 to 2010.”

It is an impressive political résumé, by any measure, and perhaps the perfect preparation for Dugher’s current role as CEO of the BGC. It’s a role he took up in December 2019, leading a Council that was bringing together not only diverse sectors of the UK gambling industry, but some of the biggest global players in the industry as a whole. That experience in politics, and no doubt the contacts Dugher has built up throughout his career, will have been undeniably helpful as the BGC evaluated which figurehead could guide it through its formative years.

As far as Dugher’s own formative years were concerned, politics was always the likely path; having grown up in Edlington, a working-class pit village a few miles outside of Doncaster, South Yorkshire. Dugher grew up during the Miners’ Strike in the 1980s, a time of great political division as Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher pushed ruthlessly to close coal mines across Great Britain – and those who sympathised with the miners rallied behind them. Dugher’s father was a railwayman but, regardless, Dugher knew plenty of friends and family who worked down the mines.

“It was quite a political and traumatic time to grow up in that village, and in those circumstances,” Dugher explains. “Naturally, in those days, it was a very strong Labour part of the world. I would have probably been described as being on the right of the Labour Party, or these days, centrist/moderate. I joined the Labour Party when I was 15. I think from my teenage years, I was very political and studied politics at university, and was involved in student politics. I was National Chair of Labour Students when I was 22. So I think from my teenage years, that was always my ambition.”

Organised Noise

As already stated, though, Dugher saw politics as a profession – and not necessarily a “great love” like many of his peers down the years. It was never his “obsession” and Dugher felt a huge draw towards music and sports. He even played in a number of bands. “A journalist once told me I’ve got a Hinterland – an interest outside politics, in music and sport,” he remarks. “I replied: well that’s like normal people! Normal people are into other stuff.”

Gambling Insider can’t help but ask what bands Dugher was a part of – and whether these involved any particularly fun band names. “They were pretty terrible!” the BGC CEO laughs.“The names were probably as terrible as the bands. One was called ‘Organised Noise’ – we were quite good at the last bit but less good at the first bit. When I was at UK Music, as an amateur musician – some would say very amateur – I would still play the odd things. My claim to fame: I once played the Cavern Club, which the BBC covered at the time. I’m still very much an amateur musician, and only tend to annoy my family, who have the unfortunate pleasure of living in the same house!”

In 2017, Dugher was able to turn his interest into a full-time job, when he was appointed CEO of the aforementioned UK Music, the trade body that represents all facets of the commercial music industry. Dugher spent just under three years there, during which time he left the Labour Party in 2018 over what he regarded as racism and anti-Semitism within the party. It was a role Dugher was naturally thrilled by until his departure in December 2019, when the newly formed BGC hired him as its inaugural CEO. His task was to guide the Council through the upcoming UK Government review – which at the time of writing, is still upcoming – and to bring the industry together. “But also for the industry getting its act together,” Dugher is keen to add.

Giving people a voice

Elsewhere, Dugher has held roles in the private sector, as well as being head of policy for a large trade union. As he reflects on this variety of positions, and how they compare to his current job in gambling, the Yorkshireman can’t help but identify “strong similarities.” Chief among those are the “common themes” of Dugher bringing different groups together – and giving people a voice. He tells Gambling Insider: “I suppose I’d be no different than around half the UK population – the 30 million who always enjoy a bet to some extent.

“Growing up in Doncaster, it’s a big racing town and I was always a big racing fan. I would enjoy trips to the races and a bet there, and dog racing when I was younger. In Parliament, I’d dealt with the betting industry. In my constituency, like lots of others, the betting industry employed many people. I’d go and do visits in betting shops and do a charity bet on the Grand National. At the BGC, we are the standards body for the industry. We’ve brought the industry together; but we’re about ensuring the nearly 120,000 people whose jobs depend on this industry have a voice.”

This is something Dugher has always strived to achieve, whether in Parliament or with the trade unions. His job in gambling now is, in many ways, very similar to Dugher’s last role at UK Music. Even though it was a  different sector, Dugher’s role there involved bringing together diverse groups, such as music labels, publishers, artists, the live sector and more. “So a common theme is bringing people together,” he reiterates, “and, of course, my job is to talk to people in Government, having been in Government before.”

Signs of progress

Looking back on his work – and that of the Council – since 2019, Dugher is encouraged by the strides the BGC has made. “It is only two years since we were set up,” he says. “So it’s no easy task bringing together very big global operators, but also lots of independent businesses; we’ve got the casino sector rooted in the hospitality, entertainment and tourism industries. Betting shops are still very, very important to the industry, for tax, employment and money for horseracing, as well as being a big presence in high-street retail. And, of course, increasingly we have a presence online, where we represent world-leading British tech companies. So I think it was an achievement in itself of bringing those people together, and I think we’ve made huge progress in terms of standards, as well.”

The past two years, in Dugher’s words, have seen the BGC recognise public concern in the UK – embracing the safer gambling agenda. Dugher is equally quick to point to the “huge success” of November’s Safer Gambling Week; before highlighting that this is not something the BGC will do for one week only, but rather every week of the year. Perhaps most importantly for Dugher, there have been statistical signs of progress, with the most recent Gambling Commission figures suggesting problem gambling rates have fallen to around 0.3%. Such data from Great Britain’s regulator is a “key component” for the BGC’s core mission. So too is the work it is doing with the UK Government, ahead of the White Paper that is due to recommend  changes to the 2005 Gambling Act.

The anti-gambling lobby

Throughout our CEO Special interviews this year, an unavoidable theme has been the excitement spreading across the US market, as sports betting is legalised across more and more states. That theme has been prevalent since May 2018, when PASPA was overturned, paving the way for the legalisation of sports betting in the US outside Nevada. Looking at that excitement across the Atlantic Ocean – among gambling companies, sports bettors, investors and even state politicians looking to boost tax revenue – it might be difficult to empathise with the very different climate currently facing the UK. A far more mature market, UK gambling has for some time divided opinion. And there, for some time, has been the unignorable presence of an anti-gambling lobby.

For the BGC this has meant a combination of both praise and criticism for the work it has done. “I think the BGC has received quite a lot of praise in recent times,” Dugher says, “whether it’s for safer gambling or supporting charities like we did at Royal Ascot. I think any praise the BGC receives is a great credit to the work we do and all our members that support it. There will always be critics of the industry but what I’m really interested in is the people, including MPs, that really want to see positive change. We agree with them. That is the majority of people – they’re not necessarily anti-gambling at all. But there’s always been a hardcore minority within the anti-gambling lobby, which involves a small number of MPs and the usual suspects on social media.”

This anti-gambling lobby is “just a fact of life,” according to the executive. Half the country chooses to wager and Dugher encourages these millions of bettors to spend “their money” safely with the regulated gambling sector. For the CEO, this enhances the enjoyment of sports like horseracing and football, with nights out in casinos equally representing “perfectly legitimate personal choices.” Dugher himself “enjoys having a bet” and is never going to try and persuade the millions of non-gamblers in the UK to change their preference. He explains: “Those people don’t necessarily object to others doing it; it’s just not something that they do – and that’s okay, too. But there’s always been a noisy minority that are anti-gambling, maybe for religious reasons or other reasons. They think gambling is like taking drugs and tobacco; they think it’s universally harmful to all. The evidence doesn’t bear that out, but when a bishop stands up in the House of Lords and is anti-gambling, we just have to accept there will always be people with these beliefs.”

In Dugher’s opinion, however, this is not a view that’s shared by the majority of Parliamentarians, nor is it the view of the “vast majority of the public.” The gambling sector pays an annual £4.5bn ($6.11bn) in tax and contributes billions to the UK economy. Its financial contribution to sports cannot be ignored, especially horseracing, football (even more emphatic in the lower leagues), darts and snooker. All of this would be put in “jeopardy” if the regulated betting industry did not exist, according to Dugher. “I think it deserves a voice – it’s just a fact of life there will be people out there that are anti-gambling. But I don’t believe they represent the majority and so I don’t think prohibitionists should be dominating public policy, because I don’t think their view is representative.”

Life’s too short

Something that amuses both the interviewer and interviewee at this point is the UK’s mainstream media coverage of the gambling industry, where national newspapers will slam the sector en masse – against a backdrop of gambling adverts within those very publications. As Dugher points out, if you read the Daily Mail on a Saturday, it becomes quite clear the Mail’s campaign to ‘Stop the gambling predators’ doesn’t apply to the Daily Mail itself. “In politics, you get used to that,” he remarks.

Yet, with the advent of social media, there is now a greater discussion about the merits of gambling on an everyday level. This, of course, has both its benefits and drawbacks – but it has definitely impacted Dugher’s role. An active user of platforms like Twitter, Dugher engages with users in debate quite regularly. Here, social media’s anti-gambling lobby has even crossed over with the tabloids, as Dugher has made newspaper headlines for exchanges held with campaigners such as Matt Zarb-Cousin. So has social media actually changed the role of a CEO?

“Different CEOs and different people have a different way of doing things. There’s no right or wrong way of doing it,” Dugher responds. “I think social media is a fact of life, even if we sometimes wished it wasn’t. I do wonder how healthy it is – you take a platform like Twitter, it does attract obsessives and a lot of angry people: the keyboard warriors. We’ve got a job to do, to tell our story, to communicate the work we’re doing on safer gambling. So in the same way we do stuff with mainstream media, we put out videos and animations on social media – Kevin Schofield [Director of Communications] and others have done fantastic work here.”

Dugher does believe that, to communicate the right messages and carry out a job most effectively, one has to embrace all the available platforms for doing so. That’s why Dugher himself is very visible on social media, even if  there are gaping flaws concerning both the safety and enjoyment of social media users. Much like with the abhorrent online racist abuse that has become so apparent in recent years, a huge problem is the anonymity of certain accounts. The BGC CEO says he is the subject of many “personal attacks” from such anonymous profiles – which he promptly blocks. He explains: “If people are reasonable and civil, I’ll engage with them. If I think someone from an anonymous account is just abusing me, then I block people. Because life’s too short. You’ve just got to pick and choose between people with legitimate questions and issues, and others that are just using it as a platform for abuse.”

Raising standards

As 2022 kicks off, Dugher’s main focus at the BGC is inevitably the upcoming Government review of the Gambling Act 2005. He is not alone. The review has been long in the making, generating headline after headline, and drawing extreme opinions from all sides. Some want policies such as online stake limits, a blanket ban on gambling advertising and proof of income for every bettor in the country. On the other side of the fence, fierce defenders of the status quo believe any ‘Draconian’ changes will impose a ‘Nanny State’ where personal freedom is eroded and the concept of personal responsibility negligibly overlooked. As with anything in life, the reality will lie somewhere in the middle ground.

Dugher comments: “Obviously, the biggest thing for our industry in the coming months will be the conclusion of the Government’s Gambling Review and the forthcoming White Paper; which I think will contain a package of the most significant changes to regulated gambling we would have seen since the 2005 Gambling Act. I think it’s a huge opportunity for change and it’s something the regulated betting industry has worked very hard on, to embrace changes and the whole safer gambling agenda. That’s the most important thing that will happen over the coming year.  I think if I was one of the 120,000 people whose jobs depend on our industry, I’d be following that very closely.”

Whatever the outcome, the BGC has never shied away from acknowledging the need for higher standards across gambling. Fine after fine is being handed out by the Gambling Commission every year, usually for the same old errors: anti-money laundering failings when checking source of funds and social responsibility failings when addressing problem gambling. The ongoing work of the regulator, Dugher says, is of extreme importance to the BGC and there is no denial that operators must do more. At the same time, though, the industry needs to work with the UK Government and the Gambling Commission to achieve a unified aim. That is where the fundamental balance for Dugher lays.

“I think, really, recognising that the BGC is only two years old, my job is to get the industry into the best position when it comes to the review and future changes,” the CEO concludes. “But long after that White Paper is done, that’ll be my job and the job of the BGC. The job of raising standards won’t be done once the review is complete. We will have to continue that work – and that’s something we’re looking forward to.”