Another non-story about gambling lobbying

Let’s look at Great Britain’s gambling industry, or more specifically, the coverage of gambling lobbying. Now, I am, it has been noted, a fan of journalism. Not all of it. There’s some proper rubbish out there masquerading. 

I’m a fan of the real thing, where someone is getting their nose into a story, weeding out information, changing the way that we see the world. Good journalism is genuinely transformative; bad or even just lazy journalism is not. Well, not in a good way.

I don’t know where this column fits into that idea, and luckily that’s for you to decide, not me.

I’m a huge fan of The Guardian; I think their investigative journalism is peerless in the UK, and there are very few titles that come close even globally. But I do think, and with justification, that the newspaper is deeply disappointing with its approach to stories about the gambling industry. 

There, the newspaper reverts to playground rules where the business is evil and its customers are victims of a nefarious plot to ruin lives and take money.

Dastardly, underhand tactics?

The story on 21 May concerned Entain’s dastardly, underhand tactics to undermine the recently-landed white paper. Apparently the company has been engaging in ‘dishonest’ gambling lobbying.

In “emails seen by The Guardian”, Entain-founded organisation the Players’ Panel emailed its list to say: “The government has decided to limit when and how much you can bet. This is going to significantly impact your ability to bet responsibly.” 

The group then urged recipients to write to their MP voicing their opposition to the reforms.

First, let’s just address that second sentence quoted in the email: “This is going to significantly impact your ability to bet responsibly”. That’s obviously a serious stretching of the truth. Nothing in the white paper does any such thing but I suppose it could depend on your definition of a responsible bet.

But now let’s look at the meat and veg here. Lobbying is a thing, there are rules as to how it can be done, and Entain has, I believe, not broken a single rule here. Maybe they could have been more above board. They could have sent Entain headed paper for people to print their letters on for their MPs, for example, and perhaps supplied some Entain-branded ‘GAMBLING IS BRILLIANT’ postage stamps. But they don’t make the rules. 

They have, however, played by them and there are zero issues with this. It’s a non-story on its best day, despite some journalists protesting otherwise. 

Biased coverage of gambling

I should state right now, I’m a huge fan of Rob Davies’ work – he’s a terrific journalist, right up until he deals with the gambling industry. Then, we just go right back to the old polar argument of one side is good, one side is bad. 

I co-host The Gambling Files podcast with Fintan Costello, and we welcomed Rob on to talk about his book Jackpot – How Gambling Conquered Britain and he was great. Super smart, very funny, and highly knowledgeable.

I tweeted Rob about the story, actually jumping into a conversation he was having with someone already about it. He wasn’t particularly happy to discuss it, I think it’s fair to say, but as I pointed out players, industry, anybody with the opposing view has no way to redress this in the pages of the newspaper, so here we are. 

I do think that when it comes to gambling, The Guardian shows bias. A lot of bias, actually. And the newspaper routinely gives our critics a platform to speak (regardless of how fast and loose they might be with actual facts) while denying the industry the right to reply.

But then who should reply for the industry? The Betting and Gaming Council? Isn’t this precisely the kind of conversation they should be having and exactly the kind of representation as an industry we can expect?

I’ve emailed The Guardian’s business editor to point out that there is a lack of balance and a right of reply, and I quote his email to me here verbatim. It’s the bit between the speechmarks: 

“ ”.

Is gambling an easy target?

I believe that part of the issue with bias is pretty simple. We’re an easy target as an industry. People – even when they understand business – don’t necessarily understand how an igaming business works, or how stupid and sometimes very harmful mistakes happen (not that any mistakes happened here). 

We could explain it to them, if we were allowed. But we’re not, and we have an industry body that already has its friendly journalists and doesn’t seem bothered by the idea of dealing with rest of the national press. And our critics are more concerned with, well, being critics than doing anything to further the conversation.

Most journalists now are middle-class. It’s not always been the case, but more and more, journalism (and in fact publishing as a whole) is about who can afford to fund the education needed to get in the door. Or in some cases, who can afford to be funded by their parents while they do five years as an unpaid intern. 

I freely admit I’m not in that group, and it’s seriously unlikely that anyone will be making their way into publishing the way I did decades ago. Losing working class voices from journalism can result in damaging bias like we’re seeing in The Guardian right now – a moral bias which sits in judgement of an industry it barely understands. 

Part of the fabric of the community

I was lucky enough to mediate a panel on ethics in the industry with the shadow gambling minister Alex Davies-Jones recently, for The Gaming Boardroom. She was terrific, and what shone out was that she comes from a working-class town and understands the part that the local bingo hall and the bookies plays in the fabric of the community. 

I’m not singling any journalist out when I say this, I promise you. I sincerely doubt though, that any middle-class journalist in the national press has spent any time at all in the bookies or bingo hall of an average British working-class town. Or lived somewhere where the best hope of a good job was working your butt off to get in at the ground floor of a local casino. 

At the top end of the industry are hundreds of people who have worked up from the very bottom level and rose through the ranks with hard work and aptitude.

In the story we started discussing, plenty of politicians have weighed in about this apparently dreadful-but-totally-legal and not-even-slightly-rule-breaking lobbying of Entain’s (if the templates were in fact supplied by them – this remains unconfirmed). 

But the problem there is, it’s all about timing and context. See, if a reporter from a national newspaper phones you and says “Can I have a comment about this terrible behaviour from the gambling industry?” then no politician is going to say anything other than, “Gosh yes. What terrible behaviour by the gambling industry”.

Populist points-scoring

I once had a client who insisted that despite their massive cost-cutting measures, their Christmas party was going on regardless. Several courses in a stately home, free bar, you name it. It wouldn’t have been fine dining, but it would have been very nice I’m sure. 

I pointed out the issues with this while they are bleating about cost-cutting to me. Their reply was, “But Jon, the Christmas party is very important to people.” I replied that no, it’s not. It’s about context. 

If you ask a downtrodden office peon if they want a Christmas party, they will of course say yes. If you ask them if they want a Christmas party or an extra £200 at Christmas, not one person will take the party.

Ask them if they want a party or for two of their colleagues to still have jobs for a year… You get the idea with that. No politician is going to walk away from scoring easy, populist points, and so that’s what they got. 

Another non-story on gambling lobbying

An earlier Guardian gambling lobbying story on the UK industry was similar in its non-story scope, but this one at least had the easy target of an MP in its sights when Philip Davies visited Mayfair casino Les Ambassadeurs in the months before the white paper was published. 

The story claimed he lobbied on behalf of the casino and if that’s true, it is the cheapest and most effective lobbying in history. It didn’t even warrant a hospitality declaration, and he received no money from the club, yet somehow they managed to persuade him that something had to change and he did it from the kindness of his heart. Top man!

OR… Or maybe they just had a conversation. Maybe the club just sat down with him, some adults in a room together, maybe a bite to eat, and explained something that might be really useful for them.

They explained how it worked and what it would mean, and let him go away and make his own mind up about it. 

Les Ambassadeurs employs the brilliant Tracy Damestani, former head of the National Casino Forum and someone who knows how to have a conversation with another adult. Even a politician.

A fact of life, and a fact of business

Lobbying is a fact of life and a fact of business. If these business leaders were not doing it, they would not be doing their jobs. It was explained to me that newspapers don’t just cover stories where something illegal has happened. And I get that, I’ve been doing this for a while as well. But it helps if something has happened.

Good journalism is genuinely transformative and is an absolute necessity in any democracy. But to thrive it needs balance regardless of any author or editor’s own bias, and it needs a variety of voices and opinions so readers can form their own balanced view. Right now, The Guardian is achieving none of this.

PS: If anyone wants to lobby me, I’m very, very cheap and a steak dinner will usually always work.

Jon Bruford has been working in the gambling industry for over 17 years, formerly as managing editor of Casino International and presently as publishing director at The Gaming Boardroom, with Kate Chambers and Greg Saint. He owns a large dog with a sensitive stomach and spends his free time learning about stain removal.

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