Winning Post: Parliament debates state control on gambling and football

By | May 17, 2021

Regulus Partners examines a further week of Parliamentary debate, where the state has been urged to intervene on safer gambling affordability controls and on how media rights should be distributed fairly benefitting all levels of football.

In Parliament – with friends like this…

The parliamentary campaign against gambling resumed this week with a string of questions submitted to the DCMS by the leaders of the Gambling-related Harm All Party Parliamentary Group and the Peers for Gambling Reform.

Carolyn Harris MP (Lab, Swansea East) who chairs the GRH APPG and Lord Foster of Bath who leads the PGR both renewed the push for state-imposed spending caps and intrusive affordability checks on British citizens. Both seem to be labouring under the delusion that it is a statutory requirement of the Gambling Commission to introduce such illiberal controls – and curiously reject the idea that such matters of civil liberty should be the province of Parliament. Their ardour may be of some concern to friends in the arcades sector who would likely be put out of business permanently if track and trace for gambling (amongst other things) were to be introduced. With friends like this…

Other issues in the crosshairs for these parliamentary lobby groups include coroners reporting, clinical guidelines for treatment, affiliate marketing and a ban on advertising. Lord Foster and his peers would like to see a ban on gambling advertising “in or near sports venues” across the country – something that would bring about the end of horseracing in Great Britain. This would include the closure of the historic course at Bath (Foster’s former parliamentary constituency and the town of his peerage) where racing has taken place for almost 300 years. With representatives like this….

Harris meanwhile was one of four parliamentary signatories to a letter published this week by Gambling With Lives calling for a ban on gambling adverts during televised coverage of this summer’s UEFA European Championships. The majority of the 60 signatories were either recovering disordered gamblers or affected others.

Their opposition to gambling advertising is entirely understandable. It is generally accepted that advertising can undermine the efforts of those seeking to cut down or abstain from gambling – but this is also the case for a much wider range of activities, including drinking beer, eating pizza, using financial services, surfing the internet or shopping for non-essentials. It is an issue that calls for speedier development of adtech to allow viewers to screen out marketing for certain products rather than bans that might in time cover a large swathe of commerce.

The idea that advertising ‘normalises’ gambling and encourages underage gambling is a favourite trope for those who prefer not to let facts get in the way of a good story. As we have observed in the past, gambling is in fact a fairly normal activity for many adults (far more than for example attending religious services or going to the theatre). The claim that advertising encourages children to gamble is confronted by the fact that during a period of advertising expansion, the national rate of underage gambling (low by international standards) sharply declined.

The rate of online gambling (the service being advertised) by children is very low, in decline and – where it does occur – almost entirely facilitated by parents. The 2020 Young People and Gambling Survey found that those children who recalled seeing gambling adverts were less likely to have gambled (and less likely to have gambled online) than children who did not. With facts like these…

The importance to campaigners of an advertising ban is largely symbolic, representing a societal marginalisation of gambling as a leisure activity and a return (as Gambling With Lives stated in its letter) to a less liberal era where gambling was tolerated but not promoted. Some licensees are attracted to a broadcast ban, perceiving a policy of margin-enhancing appeasement – but this is risky. The whistle-to-whistle ban introduced in 2019 is now being positioned by Harris and others as “an admission from the industry that gambling adverts are harmful”. With lobbying like this…

Both Carolyn Harris and Lord Foster rightly reject the prohibitionist tag. Harris’s name is carved in stone on the wall of a bingo club in south Wales (which she officially reopened a number of years ago) while Lord Foster was a strong supporter of the not-so-super casino that opened in Bath in 2017 (only to close for good last year). The problem is that the policies they seek to impose would likely bring about the closure of most bingo clubs, casinos and arcades in Britain and bring the curtain down on the ‘sport of kings (and queens)’. With liberals like these…
UK: Football broadcast rights… carry on paying 

The Premier League has permission from the Culture Secretary and the Business Secretary to waive its normal broadcast tender process for three years, rolling over the current structure. The logic is clear enough: Covid-19 policy responses have caused such significant business disruption and ongoing uncertainty that the EPL has needed to step in with support; conducting the broadcast tender process in the middle of this would be impractical and may undermine the support given. To sweeten the pill the EPL has doubled down on its grassroots commitments during the revised period in question.

This is all very sensible stuff and on one level demonstrates appropriate government flexibility in extraordinary circumstances. However, we have already seen attempted “soft power” being exerted from the government on issues such as football betting streaming, the European Super League and the hosting of the Champions League final.

The extent to which this “soft power” will seek to further shape English and Scottish football is an open question, but the “fan-centric” review perhaps gives a further clue as to the direction of travel as well as considerable leverage. The government has assured doubters that joining in the European Super League knifing (et tu Bojo?) had nothing to do with this decision; that is almost certainly true, but the whiff of conflict nevertheless may linger given the government’s decision to have an opinion and to voice it so strongly.

Not all government policy needs legislation, but there is a danger here, as with other serious commercial and ethical questions, that a government’s public-facing opinion may impact its ability to carry out those elements of its role that must be beyond reproach. That the biggest driver of government decision-making sometimes appears to be the likely social media reaction rather than sound law and accountable governance makes this all the more dangerous for stakeholders.

Without a legislative process, government accountability is much weaker and strong opinion or effective lobbying can be much more powerful than evidence or sound judgement. Special interest groups usually welcome state intervention into private matters at first; very few maintain this view for long. Soon The Great and Good of English Football may well have cause to cry infamy, they’ve all got it in for me …

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Featured article edited by SBC from ‘Winning Post’ Sunday 16 May 2021 (click on the below logo to access a full unedited version)

 

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