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Analysis: Murdoch letters show industry critics are far from satisfied

After announcing its planned ban on credit card gambling earlier this week, the Gambling Commission (GC) could be forgiven for thinking it might be free from criticism for a few days; that is until it received a letter from Claire Murdoch, National Mental Health Director for the NHS.

Argument

The letter criticises the gambling industry’s contribution to problem gambling in the UK, urging immediate action on a number of issues. Additional letters were sent to the CEOs of the UK’s top operators, requesting "urgent detail" on actions each company is taking to reduce problem gambling.

In the letter addressed to Denise and John Coates, Joint CEOs of Bet365, she wrote: "As head of England’s mental health services and a nurse of more than 30 years’ experience, I have seen first-hand the devastating impact on mental wellbeing of addiction and am concerned the prevalence of gambling in our society is causing harm.

"In particular, the reports of certain tactics used by firms to target those of your customers who have already lost sums, and are willing to bet more to seek to recover losses, are concerning.

"If reports are correct I am concerned that offering people who are losing vast sums of money free tickets, VIP experiences and free bets all proactively prompt people back into the vicious gambling cycle which many want to escape."

Although I believe the ban on credit card gambling is a positive for the industry and its customers, these letters demonstrate the new regulation has done little to quell concerns, with Murdoch even criticising the ban’s three-month delay.

While the ban is set to come into effect on 14 April, Murdoch urges operators to stop the use of credit cards for gambling purposes with immediate effect, "helping ensure people don’t spend money they don’t have."

The media’s response to the credit card ban also suggests a lack of satisfaction, with one example being Channel 4 News’ feature on the night of the GC’s announcement.

Rather than focus on the benefits of the ban, the news feature centres on its insignificance in relation to desired regulatory changes for the sector.

The short video involves interviews with Matt, a problem gambler who lost over £700,000 ($914,081) through his addiction, and Liz and Charles Ritchie, the parents of a problem gambler who lost his life through suicide.

Needless to say, all the interviewees make clear their belief credit card gambling is the least of the industry’s issues, urging the Government to do more to intervene.

Now that the issue of credit card gambling has been taken off the table, more light will undoubtedly shine on other areas; in her letters, Murdoch makes clear the reforms she believes should be next. She calls for an end to ‘bet-to-view’ commercial deals through which gambling sites require customers to stake or deposit in exchange for sports streaming access.

These deals came to light recently after every FA Cup third round that didn’t start at 15:01 on the Saturday was streamed via the Bet365 website and app. Seven gambling sites, including Bet365, William Hill and Paddy Power, had previously been sold the streaming rights for FA Cup fixtures.

In addition, Murdoch urges operators to end the targeting of high-loss customers, including incentives such as free bets and cash bonuses. VIP betting has been under the magnifying glass for some time and in response the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC) announced it would create a code of conduct for VIP programmes in the industry last November.

However, this pledge has done little to silence critics of the practice. Only last week The Guardian published figures reportedly retrieved from the GC showing UK operators’ heavy reliance on VIP profits.

With the credit card gambling ban soon to be in place and the industry’s critics seemingly louder than ever, no doubt these issues will take centre stage.

The one positive the industry can take from Murdoch’s letters is its collaborative response.

While the letters were sent individually to the CEOs of William Hill, Betfred, Bet365, GVC and Flutter Entertainment; the BGC replied for all.

This suggests a level of collaboration in the industry which perhaps was not possible in previous years. Undoubtedly this will be beneficial in any action taken to create a safer gambling environment, with there being an air of the UK's answer to the American Gaming Association about it.

In her response, Brigid Simmonds, Chairman of the BGC, outlines the work the group’s members have been doing, such as new age-verification checks, the introduction of the whistle-to-whistle advertising ban and the creation of Gamstop.

Simmonds also invites Murdoch to meet with the BGC at the earliest opportunity to discuss her concerns and this certainly seems like a good starting point to establish what can actually be done to satisfy concerns once and for all.

But the more pressing question is: will these concerns ever be truly addressed?

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