Comment: UK gambling industry should brace for a new media storm

By Tim Poole

As the coronavirus outbreak gripped the globe, the UK media unsurprisingly found less time to cover the gambling industry, focusing instead on the quickly unfolding pandemic.

At the same time, the positive influence of the Betting & Gaming Council (BGC) since its formation in November has reduced unnecessary media criticism.

As you can read about in the May/June edition of Gambling Insider magazine, the BGC has already got to work swatting baseless accusations from mainstream outlets; it has also lobbied very effectively to persuade the UK Government to reverse a recent decision and provide gambling firms with COVID-19-related aid. Its Virtual Grand National endeavour even drew widespread praise from publications across the UK.

But the slowdown in 'bookie bashing' has naturally had more to do with the greater dedication of resources towards reporting the coronavirus pandemic.

And rightly so – except for the fact the pandemic is now less of a 'new' phenomenon, which has slowly seen an anti-gambling agenda creep back into the national spotlight, as media outlets begin to dedicate more attention to the normalised, everyday aspects of life in lockdown.

A key example was recent coverage in the Daily Mirror newspaper, of several gambling companies in Singapore offering markets on the daily coronavirus death count.

The headline ‘Punters can bet on daily coronavirus cases on sick illegal gambling websites’ was a wholly accurate one. You can indeed place these bets and offering such abhorrent markets is indeed 'sick.'

Here, the Daily Mirror did nothing wrong and simply reported the facts. It, of course, failed to mention licensed sites in the UK are in a completely different realm of gambling, in that their licenses would likely be removed immediately upon offering of such markets, though it is not obliged to do so.

But, when it comes to public perception, a betting website is a betting website – whether licensed or unlicensed. That’s why a pandemic like this is always likely to lead to outliers and bad actors letting the regulated sector down – lowering the wider industry’s reputation even further.

Ominously following that story, though, was a request from the Guardian newspaper. The Guardian community team’s post on Thursday asked the public to describe how life in lockdown is affecting their gambling.

Again, the Guardian has done nothing wrong here. This is, of course, a story in the public interest, with problem gamblers understood to be at increased risk when in isolation and social distancing.

Given the Guardian’s history, however, you can see exactly what the publication is doing. As well as giving a voice to people who genuinely suffer from addiction, there will now be the opportunity for a frustrated player with no problem gambling tendencies at all to simply lambast their bookmaker for allowing them to lose a little more than they wanted to.

Instead of seeking out news, the Guardian has quite literally invited gambling critics to do the news hunting for the newspaper. If the majority of players email in and say they actually gamble the same or less, will it make the headlines on the websites of national outlets?

And yet if just one person says they have gambled more during lockdown, you can just imagine the stories written off the back of it. Especially when empirical evidence is all but ignored and all data, outdated or not, is blown out of proportion by the nationals on a regular basis.

Operators should therefore be prepared for a fresh wave of media scrutiny. While those in the industry can separate licensed actors from unlicensed rogues, a key distinction is the public will not.

Regulated gambling companies licensed in Malta, Gibraltar, the UK or elsewhere versus those operating offshore all fall under the same umbrella for the millions sitting at home. So if betting sites in Singapore offer immoral markets on the COVID-19 death count, compliant companies on the other side of the world will feel the heat for their actions.

There is even some continental momentum when it comes to curbing regulated operators, with poker bonuses recently being outlawed in France, while Spain has implemented heavy gambling advertising restrictions.

Meanwhile, if a casual UK player is unhappy about losing a single online wager in the last few weeks, instead of just their Twitter followers, national newspapers are now rubbing their hands together waiting to hear all about it.

It might be time once more for the gambling industry to brace itself, with another media storm potentially just around the corner.

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