McArthur’s job jibe raises hackles

27 January 2020

The Gambling Commission chief's warnings about problem gambling in a speech last week were at best, an over simplification of a complex issue, and at worst, an indication that he fails to grasp the nature of his brief, writes Scott Longley.

Seeking solace from the agony pages of the glossy magazines might seem an unlikely route for a gambling industry hoping to find guidance over the breakdown of its relationship with the GB Gambling Commission.

Yet after hearing the latest attack on the sector from Commission chief executive Neil McArthur at a law firm gathering last week, a line from a recent Cosmopolitan article on the stages of a breakup seems apposite.

“You could be the juiciest peach in the whole entire world and there’s still someone out there who just doesn’t eat—or work well with—peaches.”

McArthur, we might surmise, would appear to have a problem with peaches.

Such is the conclusion after a speech where he suggested to the audience that anyone who believed the numbers of people being harmed by gambling by was “simply a fact of life and cannot be changed” then they need to “find another job.”

He liked this straw man line so much he repeated it three times by which point even cynics might feel affronted on behalf of the industry. “Boiling complex challenges down to soundbites doesn’t really help,” he said as ensured his own soundbite was heard loud and clear.

Given the integrity of those present, including operator representatives, regulators, corporate advisers, lawyers and consultants the attack appeared particularly poorly aimed. Worse, it also seemed to ignore the discussion on responsible gambling taking place after his speech which included various compliance and RG professionals.

It is a certainty none of those participants - Simo Dragicevic, founder and CEO, BetBuddy, Anna Hemmings, chief executive, GamCare, Lauren Hilton, group director of regulatory compliance, William Hill, Tanya Horgan, group risk officer, Flutter Entertainment or Joanna Wilcox, compliance manager, Spreadex - believe problem gambling rates are “simply a fact of life”. 

So who was it aimed at – and why did the McArthur generalise the criticism rather than making it specifically and directly? Indeed, the ensuing discussion was testament to the extent to which the sector now takes its responsible gambling measures seriously.

Collectively they are clearly, as McArthur said of his colleagues at the Commission, “passionately committed to making gambling safer”. They are the proof that, as McArthur conceded during his speech, “operators and their representatives are changing”.

Harm prevention is generally conceived as a shared responsibility and one that requires collaboration (something that is made explicit within the National Strategy for Harm Reduction); yet censure is reserved exclusively (and without discrimination) for licensees.

The trust problem
McArthur emphasised how the consumer is “at the heart of (the Commission’s approach) to regulation”. He cited the participation data from the last few years to show that trust in gambling has fallen to an all-time low of 30%.

Which, of course, is all very worrying. But this mistrust isn’t only a function of how gambling operators work. The media plays a huge part; as witnessed in just the last couple of weeks, the constant hammering on the part of elements of both the tabloid and ‘quality’ press is surely taking its toll in terms of public perception.

And, in case McArthur hadn’t noticed, the trust problem isn’t confined to gambling. According to a recent survey undertaken ahead of recent World Economic Forum at Davos, trust in corporates has declined markedly with 56% of people globally now believing that capitalism does more harm than good. That erosion of trust, another WEF survey found, also spreads to government, institutions and, dare we say it, regulators.

The Gambling Commission does not conduct surveys on whether it is trusted (by licensees and others) but perhaps it should.

This counts because McArthur’s main contention is that “far, far too many” suffer from gambling harms in the UK and that it is “unacceptable” that there are circa 300,000 problem gamblers with “many more at risk of suffering gambling-related harm.”

“We will only see an increase in consumer confidence if we see a drastic reduction in the numbers of people suffering gambling related harm,” he went on to argue. 

And yet. The antagonistic press has so far proved impervious to the facts when it comes to their reporting of gambling issues. That 300,000 might not, as McArthur says, be a glass bottom but it is worth repeating that the number of people with identified problem gambling issues has pretty much remained static throughout the era of online gambling.

The only thing that has changed, as detailed at length by such respected commentators as Dan Waugh at Regulus Partners, is the definition of ‘at risk’ when it comes to gambling.

Waugh has pointed out previously that the PGSI definition of ‘low risk’ constitutes those who have “few or no identified negative consequences” from gambling. The Gambling Commission has recently started to alter the meaning of diagnostic classifications – rebadging “low risk of harm” as “low levels of harm”. It is a subtle but significant distortion of the science.

If this is the ‘many more’ that McArthur is alluding to, then perhaps he might explain how the industry should deal with a population of gamblers where there are zero signs of any issues?

“I want people to be able to enjoy gambling but not be put at risk,” McArthur said. Well, as with Evelyn Waugh’s rejoinder in Scoop, up to a point Lord Copper.

Without risk, gambling doesn’t exist. To gamble is to put yourself in the way of potential harm, whether that is gambling more than you can afford or chasing your losses.

McArthur’s reasoning appears to be that all problem gambling is unacceptable. But it isn’t complacent to think that ‘unacceptable’ problem gambling will always be there – people will always get into trouble. What those working in the area are trying to do is to mitigate when ‘unacceptable’ problem gambling occurs. To do the best for people that get into trouble.

Yet as Waugh (Dan rather than Evelyn) wrote in 2018, “an obsession with high-level data from prevalence surveys may serve to obfuscate our view of whether standards of consumer protection are being raised and what is happening as a result”.

It may be more productive to get under the skin of the issue and ask what is really going on – the nature of harms being reported; the varying degrees of severity; the effect of relapse rates, and so on. The more specific the analysis, the more likely we are to develop effective solutions. This seems a more promising approach than focusing on headline numbers and simply exhorting all licensees to “do better”. 

Focusing on the rate of gambling disorder is in many ways counter-productive, encouraging the kind of target culture that bedevils many areas of health and social care.

In which case, it wouldn’t be wrong to suggest that if McArthur fails to grasp the subtlety and nuance of his brief then maybe it is he that is in the wrong job.