The industry cannot afford to hide from things like Panorama FOBT documentaries


his has been a difficult week for the UK bookmaking industry, following the broadcasting of BBC’s Panorama documentary “Why are gambling machines so addictive?” on Monday evening. This follows reports that Prime Minister Theresa May has called for a review into the machines, but an official announcement does not appear to have been made.

Presenting the documentary was Wendy Bendel, whose partner of seven years Lee Murphy committed suicide at the age of 36 after battling a gambling addiction, stemming from his use of fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs). The documentary looked into how electronic roulette works, the psychological effects a gambling addict experiences when playing an electronic roulette machine and featured opinions from a number of relevant figures (on the anti-FOBT side anyway).

From my perspective, watching the documentary reminded me of viewing episodes of Scooby Doo as a child, in the sense that I knew from the start how things were going to pan out and I am certain most observers of the industry would have been able to predict what would be said and by whom. While in Scooby Doo it always turns out to be a man in a mask, this kind of report always turns out to be industry figures plotting their world domination by controlling the minds of every single gambler, with their primary weapon being the FOBTs.

Guess what the reaction was?

Sure enough, the national press could not resist jumping on the bandwagon in reviewing the documentary. We have now seen more repeats of the Guardian’s attacking articles on FOBTs than we have of Christmas specials of Only Fools and Horses.

The unwanted nickname of the “crack cocaine of gambling” of course appeared on a number of articles in the wake of the documentary’s airing, because some deem it fair to compare a product that can cause gambling addiction to a drug that can cause heart problems and lead to a heroin addiction, as well as up to seven years in prison.

Now let us not be under any illusions that the documentary was ever going to be particularly bothered about providing balance, because these types of reports rarely do, even if the Association of British Bookmakers (ABB) were asked for comment. I found myself playing “gambling industry bashing bingo” at one point, as I ticked off the names of Matt Zarb-Cousin, Consultant and Spokesperson for the Campaign for Fairer Gambling, and Mayor of Newham Sir Robin Wales.

The Gambling Commission (GC) offered a statement saying that a debate on FOBTs is needed, but even if it had allowed a representative to be interviewed, it would not have been likely to have come down on one side or the other, as it is and will remain neutral on the topic until a triennial review on FOBTs is carried out.

While industry figures appeared in the documentary, these spaces were reserved for those offering negative views on FOBTs, namely former Chair of Paddy Power Fintan Drury and Hippodrome Casino CEO Simon Thomas, who called the machines “immoral.” While he is entitled to his opinion, this came across as slightly hypocritical by Thomas, as it was mentioned that Lee Murphy committed suicide after playing roulette in a casino.

In fairness, it is unclear to what extent the format of the documentary was directed by its presenter, and you would most likely not want to give a strong platform for the industry to defend itself if somebody you loved and cared for took their own life as a result of a gambling addiction. Perhaps much of the format was decided by producers, and it is too unclear to accuse any specific person of holding an agenda when making the programme.

To be clear, any suicide, related to gambling or not, is a horrific story to hear, and especially when it is in some way tied to the industry that employs you. Even if only one suicide had been tied to a FOBT addiction, it would only be fair to document the issue, and Lee Murphy is not the only victim. Analysing the concept of machine addiction is not wrong and it is important to understand just how dangerous the FOBTs in particular might be. It also does not do the industry any harm to take a look at itself and see where it can improve its responsibility measures.

Why are you hiding?

The ABB offered a defensive statement only, and this was perhaps the most frustrating aspect of all. While I am unsure of the reason for the ABB not wanting to be interviewed on camera (most likely in case a representative speaker slipped up), I have to question why you would not take the opportunity to come out fighting when so many media outlets are coming after your members on this issue. If it appears that the industry is hiding behind statements on the issue, then that will never be taken as a sign of honesty, openness or transparency.

It is not as though the industry has a weak argument. As the ABB stated, staff supervision measures are now in place for stakes of over £50 on FOBTs, the average loss on a FOBT is £6.75 and they have not driven problem gambling rates, with the 2015 rate being 0.5%, according to the GC, in line with where the rate was before FOBTs entered the market in the early 2000s.

So why not put a face to the comments? A majority of Panorama viewers were not as likely to have the same level of knowledge on the situation as a representative body, and opinion can be easily swayed when watching what was an unbalanced documentary, in the same way that the national press could drive plenty of negative opinion on the topic.

B2 off course gaming machine gross gaming yield (GGY) accounted for 56% of all off course GGY generated in Great Britain for the October 2014 to September 2015 period with £1.7bn, according to the latest GC figures. Therefore, the importance of avoiding something like a maximum stake reduction to £2 should be of utmost importance, combined with the current machine gaming duty of 25%, and not sending a representative out to defend the industry in a national broadcast attacking it can be deemed as a failure by the ABB of what it should be doing – its very best to protect UK bookmakers.

Your industry needs you

While many may have already made their mind up on this issue, and we know that ideas such as the Senet Group and Responsible Gambling Trust research into FOBTs will always be met with cynicism and will never make the kind of headlines that gambling addiction stories do, it is vital that the industry takes every opportunity it can to make its defence as passionate and connective as possible, and not just offer text that will appear on a screen.

The industry now has to hope that the documentary will not lead to more damage.
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