Gambling on Debate

Resolution for a New Year – Listen without Prejudice

24th November 2021
Dan Waugh

11th January 2022


Reform of the gambling industry is being pushed through without debate – and this is to the detriment of all involved, argues Dan Waugh.

“Rule 9 – Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t”
Jordan B. Peterson (’12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos’)

One of the least edifying aspects of the debate on gambling reform in Britain is the conspicuous absence of just that – debate. Protagonists of all hues eschew evidence-driven, constructive, and collaborative problem-solving, preferring instead blind promulgation of ideology or the promotion or defence of vested interest. Instead of intelligent debate – the open-minded exchange of ideas, information, and perspective – public discourse commonly descends to the level of ‘sledging’. Vitriol and confusion are set up in the place of tolerance and clarity. In consequence of this, there is a very real possibility that attempts to place the regulation of the gambling market on a more sustainable footing will result in negative and unsustainable outcomes.   

When the British Government launched its review of the Gambling Act in December 2019, it triggered a predictable boom in the collection (and sometimes manufacture) of evidence. Over the course of the last two years, reports funded by vested interests have been submitted by NERA (National Economic Research Associates) Economic Consulting, the Social Market Foundation, the Centre for Social Justice, Ernst and Young, PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Gambling-Related Harm All-Party Parliamentary Group. In addition, publicly-funded (but not necessarily unbiased) reviews have been published by Public Health England, the National Institute of Health Research, the House of Lords Select Committee on the Gambling Industry, the Gambling Commission, the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office. Scores of researchers have attempted to influence legislative outcomes (almost uniformly in a single direction) through agenda-driven studies and journal articles. Thousands of parties have submitted opinion pieces and evidence to public consultations on matters of regulatory reform.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and Gambling Commission Calls for Evidence on (respectively) the Gambling Act review and online spending caps led collectively to 29,000 responses. With very few exceptions (eg, the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office), this work has been conducted to vindicate the views of special interest groups: to win arguments rather than to seek enlightenment. We are unlikely ever to know the financial cost of all this activity, but it will be substantial. As the American economist Douglas Walker notes, the diversion of resources to unproductive lobbying is one of the largest societal costs associated with gambling markets. 

Over the last two years, there have been opportunities to discuss the issues at stake and to scrutinise the evidence presented – even if a majority of them have taken place within the sub-optimal constraints of the virtual meeting. Yet here again, there has been precious little debate. Most webinars or conference panel discussions and presentations reflect the consensus of distinct interest groups. There are few, if any, mechanisms to consider reflectively and critically the competing claims and counterclaims of opposing factions – or to explore opportunities for collaborative solutions to shared concerns. 

Controlling the narrative

There are two key reasons for this failure to engage. First is the tendency to dumb down complex issues to promote the claims of vested interest. Robust, open, and honest debate exposes flawed logic, and it is therefore understandable that propagandists prefer the comforts of the echo chamber. Second, is the fact that meeting those with whom one disagrees can be, well, disagreeable. The public health lobby holds it as an article of faith that avoidance of genuine debate is a necessary condition for progress and so deliberately avoids or ‘no-platforms’ dissenters. The Gambling Commission’s Advisory Board for Safer Gambling, for example has in recent years adopted a policy of non-engagement with members of the gambling industry (as well as those considered ‘industry-adjacent’) – presumably to minimise chance contact with inconvenient truths.

Public Health England’s (now the Office for Health Inequalities and Disparities) forthcoming Delphi Study on potential government interventions in gambling markets was barred to any expert in receipt of industry commissions in the prior ten years, but explicitly did not discriminate against those in the pay of other vested interests (and refused to disclose the list of experts consulted). Industry participants are – on the surface at least – less susceptible to dogma in such matters; but can appear more intent on “controlling the narrative” (as the PR schtick goes) than in engaging in meaningful public debate.

Those with ‘lived experience’ of gambling harms have much to offer so long as that experience is used to enrich debate rather than to intimidate or to stifle dissent. Those sharing painful personal testimony of harm must be resilient enough to tolerate discussion of what they went through and why; and to understand that their stories achieve greatest salience when set within a broader context of scientific study and insights from treatment, regulation and operations. Those with other ‘lived experience’ (e.g. of gambling as a form of entertainment or even a livelihood in the case of professional bettors) should not be airbrushed from the debate. Deeply held and often highly relevant views must be heard and should shape policy, but not at the expense of all other evidence and opinion. 

In the absence of meaningful debate involving a broad range of participants and stakeholders, the winning of arguments (by fair means or foul) is elevated above the need to solve problems. Trust, the necessary foundation of any collective endeavour to make things better, is destroyed by wilful attempts to mislead and by casual viciousness – all too often perpetrated by those who signal their virtue most vigorously. Where opposing groups are resistant to learning from one another, they invariably find themselves reacting to one another – with the effect that the gap between them (and the distance from honest discourse) widens rather than narrows. That gambling can raise sectarian passions is a reason for it to be regulated, but not for closing-down debate or driving a wedge between industry groups, interest groups and customers.

Online echo chambers

It is possible that things might have been less dysfunctional were it not for Covid and policies of lockdown that have made it more difficult for people with different views to meet face to face. Lockdowns served to shift more of the so-called debate into online echo chambers, where arguments tend to be reinforced rather than challenged. It would be wrong however to blame things on a pandemic which already has a sufficiently long bill sheet; we have all exercised choice in our behaviours over the last two years. The present divides and current behaviours have a much longer history than Zoom. Nevertheless, the ability to start meeting again can and should be recognised as an opportunity for a fresh start to old and hitherto intractable problems.

Being open to the perspectives of others

What then is to be done about all of this? First – and rather optimistically – we believe that everyone who chooses to engage in the review of gambling legislation has an ethical responsibility to act in a way that is likely to lead to better outcomes, based upon honest appraisal of facts. All stakeholders should encourage engagement and call out barriers for what they are – obstacles to progress. Each of us has the opportunity to reach across the gap of divergent opinion and pursue solutions rather than conflict (although this is not the same as appeasement or tolerance of brazen mistruths). Those in positions of authority (eg, executives, politicians, faith leaders, regulators) who behave mendaciously or who consider that absence of evidence betokens evidence of absence (or alternatively, that absence justifies fabrication) must accept responsibility for the flawed outcomes that follow. The idea that unethical means may be justified by purportedly noble ends is corrupt and counterproductive. 

Second, there are a number of organisations – government and government agencies, the NHS, trade associations – who have a higher responsibility to act with integrity and who might reasonably be expected to take the lead in promoting intelligent, tolerant discourse. In contrast to the 2000-2001 review of legislation (led by Sir Alan Budd’s Gambling Review Body) there has been no government-sponsored mechanism for public debate, and this may yet present issues of transparency when the White Paper is published. It is painful to point out the market regulator’s failure to provide leadership, precisely because it was the valedictory wish of the former Chair, Philip Graf in 2015 that the Commission should be a beacon of truth in an often-murky debate.

The Gambling Commission is, thankfully under new management and has an opportunity to grasp the opportunity that Graf conceived for it (early signs are at least promising). In the meantime, all convenors should challenge themselves to convert talking shops into engines of progress. Conferences and seminars that entrench opinion rather than furthering knowledge serve little purpose in the long run. Conference organisers should take as much care to ensure diversity of perspective as they do with diversity of gender or race. Those asked to attend such events might agree to lend their wisdom only on the basis that an important question will be addressed, that it will be allotted sufficient time and that divergent points of view will be sought in pursuit of a solution. 

We all become stronger when we open ourselves to the perspectives of others. New Year’s resolutions may be notoriously hard to keep – but all of us engaged in the Gambling Act review can choose to behave a little better this year; holding strong opinions lightly and opening ourselves to opportunities to learn from others (especially those perceived as opponents). This hardly appears too much to ask when presented with such an important opportunity for progress.  

We end therefore with a simple suggestion for a three-fold New Years’ Resolution:

  1. spend time with those with whom you disagree – to understand rather than to ‘convert’ (make a list and see how many you can meet during the year);
  2. weigh evidence to form intelligent opinions and use new information to reappraise rather than to support extant positions;
  3. refrain from ad hominem denigration of those with whom one disagrees (we are all human, after all).

Dan Waugh is a partner at the global strategic sports and leisure advisory firm, Regulus Partners.

Photo by Hush Naidoo Jade Photography on Unsplash.