Does the media have a part to play in addressing problem gambling?

Each day when I read gambling-related articles, it makes me feel sad that everything is so heavily weighted towards the damage ‘greedy’ gambling companies ‘deliberately’ inflict on society. Working in the industry for 15 years, I’ve seen huge changes in attitude and approach to consumer protection, partly driven by regulatory change but also by an increase in awareness and understanding of problem gambling.

Contrary to apparent popular belief, people working in the industry are not primed to rinse vulnerable customers of every penny they own. In fact, it really is the last thing they want to happen, and this is the reason we are seeing such heavy investment in research, people and ‘regtech’ tools. It should be remembered that industry staff themselves are highly vulnerable to developing gambling problems and many of them have been personally affected by the issue.

Working together

However, in a society which has engaged in gambling, literally for centuries, there is no quick fix. Although the relationship between the industry and the Commission has been strained for some time, a recent, strong focus on collaboration has started to make it feel like we are turning a corner. Lines of communication are opening up, best practice approaches are being developed and we are seeing a ‘race to the top’ among operators, which are now striving to bag the coveted position of the country’s most responsible gambling provider.

Unfortunately, despite the buds of change starting to bloom, we are still subject to a constant onslaught of unbalanced negativity through our media which, in my view, is entirely counterproductive. Instead of supporting these positive changes, it pressurises the regulator to demonstrate that it is taking action by continually engaging in enforcement proceedings. This diverts attention from building working synergies with the industry and thus driving iterative improvement.

More often than not, enforcement action and media coverage is based on failings embedded in very historic procedures which have long since been abandoned and rewritten from scratch. Let’s consider one of the three documentaries on the subject which aired a few months ago; BBC’s Panorama.

While the individual stories were heart wrenching to hear, there are of course two sides to every story. The programme was seemingly presented in a neutral, balanced style, however there were some glaring factual omissions, including the dates that each of the cases took place and the changes which have been made since. This made it difficult to formulate an objective opinion and undoubtedly viewers will have come away with a much more negative view of the current state of play than is strictly accurate. In turn, this informs general public opinion, which plays its part in driving political rhetoric and consequently media coverage; a very vicious circle.

The regulatory investigation procedure is long and arduous; and it creates a huge burden of work on both regulator and operator. Not only does it significantly limit the time internal compliance departments are able to dedicate to making things better, the negative, accusatory nature of the whole process leads to a breakdown of the relationship between the two parties.

If we really want to fix the problem, there has to be a level of ongoing trust between industry and regulator, who need to work together to develop effective controls. The focus should be on the future – we should be looking forwards, not backwards. If the media wants to help support such improvements, it ought to present a more balanced view, ensuring it reports the facts fully and accurately and provides coverage on the countless initiatives’ operators are driving to try and shift the dial.

Sadly, the cynical part of me thinks this is unlikely to happen as negative sensationalism apparently sells better than good news stories.

Pot, kettle, black?