I had lunch with a former Daily Mail journalist the other day, who was recalling how, on his first day in the job, he was given a single line about some issue which was taken slightly out of context, and told to built a story around it.
Even if the lunch had been ten years ago, it would still have sprung to mind when I saw yesterday that the paper was reporting the number £72million in connection with FOBTs in Rochdale. To argue that “a staggering £340 for every man, woman and child is pumped into gambling slot machines in a year” without setting that number in context is wonderful if what you want to do is alarm someone who understands nothing about it, but as a case for making policy, it is nonsense.
As I used to argue ad infinitum when people talked to me about Betfair’s gambling “turnover” as if it were something significant, an individual who loses £10 on a machine without winning, loses the £10 he started with; and an individual who starts with a tenner in his pocket, but on his last £1 spin wins enough to get back to £9; and then on his last £1 spin wins to get back to £8, and so on until he has nothing left, also loses the £10 he started with. But in the first instance, £10 is put into the machine in total, and in the second, £10+£9+£8+£7…+£1 is put in, which comes to a total of £55. No-one can sensibly suggest that the gambler started with £55 and lost £55: he only had two fivers in his pocket when he walked into the shop.
Similarly, the good people of Rochdale are unlikely to have had £72m to put into FOBTs. One company I have asked for some data came back to tell me that their four shops in Rochdale took a total of £567,127 in gross win in 2012, and gross win to the bookie is gross loss to its customers. So if the Daily Mail’s interested, that’s the number that’s relevant, because that’s the amount of money that was spent. That’s actually £2.68 for every man woman and child. Argue the rights and wrongs from there, and I’m all ears.
It’s interesting, though, this lobbying campaign against FOBTs, with its “crack cocaine of gambling” line that was repeated four times in the article. In many respects, full marks to the ‘Campaign for Fairer Gambling’ which has raised the issue to lead the broadcast news and front the pages of newspapers.
Exactly what the CFG is, though, is not clear. Its submission to DCMS argues that casino regulation should be relaxed (page 30), which is not a position you would expect to be held by an organisation which on the face of it is concerned about problem gambling. Indeed, the most recent Prevalence Study into problem gambling found that “problem gambling prevalence was highest among those who reported they regularly played poker in a club/pub (20.3%)” (page 95).
The massive offensive that the Daily Mail launched against the Gambling Act 2005, which originally would have led to the creation of supercasinos in the UK, was, curiously enough, driven by lobbying from gambling interests which stood to lose out to big new players coming in from America. It might seem odd that commercial interests which were profiting from gambling should have been behind a campaign against it, but in the specific circumstance, it made sense.
There’s no chance, I guess, that the CFG’s campaign against FOBTs might also be more about someone feeling that their commercial lunch is somewhat being eaten? Or that by ‘fairer gambling’, the balance that those behind this campaign are keenest to address is not that between punter and operator, but between operators themselves? I can understand it must be really annoying to have a patent over one type of gambling and then watch people increasingly using another form that you’re not in full control of.
Can anyone help throw any light on the background and interests of the people behind it?