From its treatment of women to accepting funds from dubious sources, Dominic Gates reports on a UK gambling industry that seems incapable of doing the right thing
Covering the online gambling industry as a journalist it is easy to forget how the sector can be viewed by outsiders. After all, when one spends so much time speaking to executives from casino and betting operators it is easy to forget the nature of the work and more importantly, how it is viewed by those who are not familiar with it or who are simply against it for any number of reasons, be they moral, societal or legal reasons.
Nonetheless, there are some well-known rules and facts that one is aware of when it comes to how it is perceived and portrayed by parts of the media. Namely, that much of the general public and most of the mainstream press don’t view in a sympathetic light. They feel it exploits people’s weaknesses and gullibility and talks itself up when it comes to corporate and social responsibility, while at the same time taking part in some of the most unethical business practices imaginable.
This may sound like a harsh introduction to this month’s column, but looking at the news from the past four weeks, one feels like asking: how much more trouble can the UK’s online gambling companies get into when it comes to… well, let’s have a quick recap: misleading advertising, complete lack of due care and procedure when it comes to responsible gambling, also known as protecting players’ mental and material well-being and, let’s not forget, good old-fashioned sexism that makes the industry look like something out of a sleazy commercial from the 1980s.
Present tense, past imperfect
February was one of those months where a casual follower of the news would think the gambling industry is stacked full of sexist, retrograde and deeply dishonourable people who think nothing of exploiting vulnerable players, accepting funds from unknown and/or criminal activities and treat women, many of them young, intelligent and articulate, as mere objects – literally, no better than that. One female contact summed the situation up neatly when she told this reporter:
“These women have so much more to offer than just standing around in skimpy outfits to be ogled at by men.”
Rewinding to the start of the month, the Gambling Commission’s outgoing boss Sarah Harrison clearly set out her stall by casting doubt on whether the UK gambling regulator would continue attending ICE Totally Gaming, the world’s largest trade exhibition and conference, should the hostesses be dressed
Much was made of Harrison’s statement across social media networks, with some female executives making it clear they wouldn’t accept a rerun of years gone by. Did the message get through? On the whole, yes, it did, most exhibitor stands were generally hosted by young ladies who were not dressed in skimpy revealing outfits. But then all it takes is a small number of companies to promote the wrong kind of games (Playboy theme, anyone?) and all bets are off. Which is exactly what happened.
Looking at the press coverage, it would have been easy to think the whole of London Excel had been turned into the biggest den of iniquity, vice and debauchery ever constructed by man. This article in the Guardian certainly made it look that way, while other usual suspects such as the Daily Mail and The Sun (oh the irony) also piled in.
And that is probably the biggest harm the ‘sexism’ row has done to the industry. There were in fact just four or five companies, out of the hundreds at the event, promoting their wares via promo girls dressed inappropriately; and this was completely lost amid the outrage and media noise. The other kicker is that the industry has progressed, and to a huge degree when compared to just 10 years ago. One industry source hit the nail on the head when he said:
“Good job those newspapers weren’t around 10 years ago, their outrage really would have been justified back then!”
From sexism to not promoting best practice when it comes to responsible gambling and accepting funds from criminal activities, it seems gambling operators are incapable of doing the right thing.
UK bookmaking giant William Hill was fined £6.2m this month for
“systemic senior management failure to protect consumers and prevent money laundering”.
In plain English it means William Hill was happy to accept deposits worth £540,000 from a player who had stolen the funds from his employer and whose own salary was £30,000 a year. This was just one of a number of incidents the Commission said had happened over a period of 14 months and while the others were not spelled out explicitly, it isn’t hard to imagine that many other breaches were committed by the operator and that the financial scale of the misdeeds run into the millions of pounds.
The real fallout from all this will be how politicians respond to this latest incident; the consensus being that it ain’t gonna be pretty… That will hurt not just a few operators like William Hill or Ladbrokes, but the whole industry, including the smaller companies that don’t work under such business practices.
What is interesting is that all these issues: corporate and social responsibility, responsible gambling and fighting money laundering and the proceeds of crime, have been the very reasons why so many anti-gambling campaigners have fought so hard against the industry; especially since it came to be known in its current modern form starting in the early 20th century.
The difficulty for operators is that they can’t simply dismiss such cases as being exceptions to the rule. Some of the recent cases have involved the biggest names in the UK sector: Gala Interactive (as it was then known), Paddy Power, 888, Rank Group and now William Hill. These events also lead to the obvious question: if the country’s biggest gambling groups, with all their financial resources, work to such bad practices, what do the smaller operators, where the pressures are that much higher, get up to in order to survive and keep operating?
For you players it shouldn’t change too many things, other than hoping that if you ever get into too much debt or fund your gambling through illegal means operators will proactively stop you from playing for your own good. Which of course is how it should be.