Newspapers, magazines and trade journals have featured the FOBtie debates extensively in recent times. Coverage increased as Parliament’s Working Party began to gather evidence in October 2016, and went on to publish its findings and conclusions in January 2017. There’s a brief summary of the report and the betting industry’s angry response here
Newspapers regularly allow space for comment columns. A recent such column, in The Daily Telegraph of 2017, was written by Jim Mullen, Chief Executive of Ladbrokes Coral. It is worth quoting in full as it covers so many of the contentious area of the debates and provides a concise summary of the main ‘lines of defence’ of the bookmaking industry:
Fixed-odds betting terminals have faced an avalanche of criticism from campaigners in recent years. Opponents have made wild claims that machines in betting shops have fuelled a surge in problem gambling, with unprecedented rises in the numbers facing problems.
Amid this flood of emotive criticism, the Government is now reviewing the future of the fixed-odds betting terminals – or FOBTs as they are known. Ministers are being urged by some to slash the amount someone can stake to as little as £2 a time.
First, the truth is that there simply hasn’t been a big increase in problem gambling. Independent studies over the last 10 to 15 years show that levels of problem gambling have remained very stable at well under one per cent of the gambling population. Two years ago, for instance, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport estimated that around 0.4 per cent of people in the UK could be defined as “problem gamblers.” Last year, the Gambling Commission calculated the figure was 0.5 per cent. These figures demolish the whole basis on which the crusade against FOBTs has been built.
Second, ministers must look carefully at the devastating impact a hasty response to these unjustified calls for action could have on the jobs of thousands of betting shop staff across the UK.
Betting shops currently employ 55,000 men and women across the UK, both in full-time and part-time jobs – and they are good jobs, with decent wages, holidays and benefits. That’s around 10 per cent of all the people employed in the UK’s leisure sector. Betting shops have a proud record of giving jobs to young people too – around a quarter of employees are aged 18 to 24. Ladbrokes Coral alone employs more than 20,000 people in around 3,500 betting shops across the country, including 6,000 under-25s and 1,000 apprentices.
Since the Seventies, the number of betting shops on our high streets has fallen by nearly half and City analysts predict more will close in future, with an estimated loss of around 6,000 jobs by 2020. But that figure would be more than three times higher if there is an unwarranted clampdown on FOBTs and staking levels
Since the Seventies, the number of betting shops on our high streets has fallen by nearly half and City analysts predict more will close in future, with an estimated loss of around 6,000 jobs by 2020. But that figure would be more than three times higher if there is an unwarranted clampdown on FOBTs and staking levels.
Despite the lack of evidence of a surge in problem gambling, critics of FOBTs want the limit on stakes to be cut from £100 to £2. The industry estimates that this would lead to an extra 15,000 job losses.
As the chief executive at Ladbrokes Coral, I will not stand idly by and watch as a group of campaigners who do not like betting machines force thousands of my dedicated colleagues out of a job and on to the dole. We are talking about losing 15,000 to 20,000 jobs. Jobs that will be lost in pretty much every constituency in our country.
Third, it is important ministers take account of the wider repercussions of an unjustified intervention. Horseracing, for instance, would lose hundreds of millions a year. The sport currently receives around £250m a year from the betting and gaming industry through a combination of media rights, sponsorship and the horserace betting levy. But if FOBT stakes are cut to £2, the amount of money available would plummet – horseracing would lose nearly £290m of funding over the next four years.
If FOBT stakes are cut to £2, the amount of money available would plummet – horseracing would lose nearly £290m of funding over the next four years Credit: Joe Giddens
The Treasury’s already stretched coffers will be hit badly too. My industry currently pays around £1bn every year in taxes but that figure will fall sharply if FOBTs are singled out for unfair punishment. Current estimates show that moving to a £2 stake would cost the Exchequer £1bn in lost tax revenue over the next four years.
There is also genuine concern that targeting FOBTs in betting shops will simply displace betting to riskier, unregulated environments. In contrast, my industry has gone to great lengths to promote responsible gambling. Our staff are trained to spot problem gambling behaviours and we enforce breaks in play to help people stay in control. We are also increasingly using technology to help monitor potential problem gamblers. We have a tough, industry wide code on the promotion and advertising of gambling and as an industry we are committed to doing more.
If this is a genuine call for evidence, then the evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of the betting and gaming industry. If ministers choose to ignore this evidence they will be gambling with the jobs of thousands of my colleagues, hardworking men and women who deserve a fair hearing.
Betting is a great British pastime. More people bet, and enjoy it, than visit National Trust properties. If we clampdown on FOBTs, hundreds of betting shops will vanish from our high streets
Betting is a great British pastime. More people bet, and enjoy it, than visit National Trust properties. If we clampdown on FOBTs, hundreds of betting shops will vanish from our high streets, and millions of Brits will no longer be able to pop down to their local betting shop to have a quick flutter. I’m proud of my industry – I started my career working Saturdays at my local betting shop – and I won’t let it go down without a fight.
I would urge ministers to pause and take time to look properly at the evidence. There is no link between FOBTs and a surge in problem gambling. There is no evidence that stake cuts on one product will do anything to solve the issue of problem gambling. In contrast, the threats to jobs, tax revenues and horseracing are very real. On that basis, ministers should reject these needless calls for a war on the betting industry.
This is an interesting piece of writing perhaps for students to study and comment upon, especially if contrasted with this opinion piece from The Guardian by a former betting industry executive, Adrian Parksinson who now works with the Campaign for Fairer Gambling.
Ten years ago, when I was working as a senior executive in the betting industry, I met John.
John was married, employed at a Morrison’s superstore in Manchester and would spend his days off in the betting shop bantering with his mates over the football, betting on the horses, playing fruit machines and wagering his money on sport.
When I caught up with John in 2009, he no longer discussed the football or the horses, nor did he have much time for banter. He was an outcast from betting shops across Manchester, his wife had left him and he had moved into a one-bedroom flat on his own. He still had his job, though was heavily in debt, and aside from paying his rent most of his wages were spent funding an addiction.
Not a drug addiction, but one that has been likened to it even by the bookmakers that operate them; he was hooked on the “crack cocaine of gambling”: fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs).
FOBTs are roulette gaming machines that allow players to bet up to £100 per spin, 50 times more than the maximum that can be bet on most fruit machines.
For more than 10 years I helped to develop and integrate FOBTs across betting shops in the UK. But in 2012 I turned whistleblower on FOBTs through Panorama, and have continued campaigning to see them restricted since.
John was one of the first victims of a FOBT-driven gambling addiction I came across. Other victims, such as a Bradford school teacher who blew £60,000 in four months, I was unaware of until they had been banned from the shops. The FOBTs I had put in these shops turned betting shop punters into pathological gamblers, and their losses became part of the estimated 23% of revenue that is derived from those with an addiction.
In the last 12 years, more than 33,000 of these high-risk casino gambling machines have gone into shops on Britain’s high streets. They are clustering on the high streets of some of the most deprived towns in the country. Allowing £100-per-spin gaming machines in easily accessible high street locations is not responsible gambling legislation.
In April the coalition government proclaimed a clampdown on FOBTs, and introduced a range of measures, including players having to identify themselves to staff when they want to stake from £50 to £100. This is an arbitrary decision, which seems to imply that those staking under £50 are not at risk of succumbing to addiction.
It also looks as if the government will soon enable councils to prevent new betting shops opening under planning laws. This is not enough. On the few occasions when bookmakers have to apply for planning permission, their bank balances combined with an appeals procedure often ensure that a decision against them is reversed.
Planning powers are not retrospective and as Clive Efford MP, Labour’s gambling spokesman, said: “It is too little too late.” This has led one MP, Tom Docherty, to submit a private members bill for a cap on the number of betting shops.
But cutting betting shops is not the answer. The solution, in my view, is for greater powers to be given to local councils, for the government to agree a safer, acceptable staking level for all machines in high-street gambling venues and for FOBT bets to be capped at £2 per spin.
In many ways these heavily contrasting opinion pieces encapsulate most of the emotional energy behind the varying viewpoints. It should be noted, as you will find across this website, the bookmaking industry often claim that other sectors in the betting industries are campaigning against them for the purpose of commercial gain.
We suggested that you won’t have to search for long on Google before you find many media stories about FOBties. As well as opinion pieces such as those above, you’ll come across many articles which include stories of personal devestation in a broader context of the controversies. An article from The Times, 17 February 2016 (subscription required), is typical of these.
Fixed-odds betting terminals have spread like cancer, devastating communities in their wake, according to campaigners.
The machines, known as FOBTs, allow punters to place bets of up to £100 every twenty seconds on electronic games such as blackjack and roulette.
“The huge potential prizes per spin and rapid gameplay draw gamblers in but the high stakes can encourage players to chase their losses, snaring them in a trap that can lead to debt, family breakdown and crime,” said Matt Zarb-Cousin, of the Campaign for Fairer Gambling. “Regular players never win,” he added.
Last year bookmakers made a profit of £1.675 billion on the machines — almost £50,000 per terminal.
Calls to Gamcare, the organisation raising awareness of problem gambling, show that more than a quarter of problem gamblers are hooked on the machines, suggesting that there may be as many as 150,000 FOTB addicts in Britain.
The article goes on to highlight a further criticism levelled about the dangers inherent in the machines – that is the violence faced by staff. If you do your own searching you will come across mor ethan a few references to this issue. The bookmaking industry deny that their staff are in danger, and again you will find references to this via basic searches.
Desperate players vandalised one in five of the machines in frustration last year, a senior figure at the Gambling Commission said. In one incident in Blackburn, Sarfraz Patel, 38, flew into a “betting rage”, smashing five terminals after losing £1,000.
Betting shop workers are also at risk of extreme violence. In 2014 a gambling addict murdered a betting shop manager by hitting him repeatedly with a claw hammer. Shafique Ahmad Aarij, 21, hit Andrew Iacovou, 55, nine times before he robbed a Ladbrokes of £296. Aarij was a regular at the shop. Mr Iacovou lay undiscovered for 90 minutes as other gamblers played on.
The article also includes reference to the ‘clustering’ of bookmakers in deproved community. It personalises the open access in public spaces with the following:
Many bookmakers are now open from 7am to 10pm, maximising the amount of time punters can play the machines. Tom Medley, a recovering FOBT addict, said: “Something has gone wrong in the world when you can pop to the shop in the morning to pick up a loaf of bread and pint of milk and then pop next door to play roulette.”
The report includes a response from the Association of British Bookmakers:
The Association of British Bookmakers defended the machines and the £100 stake level. “The maximum stake on FOBTs is set by the government, not bookmakers. In fact less than 1 per cent of stakes on fixed-odds betting terminals are above £50 and the average stake on a fixed odds betting terminal is £5.13 during an average session lasting 11 minutes. The average loss was £7.”
It denied that there was an epidemic of vandalism against FOBTs, saying it is unaware of any statistical or other reliable evidence to support such a claim.
Frequently, in news reports and elsewhere (for instance in parliamentary debate) there is an appeal to evidence. We are using this particular news story as fairly typical of many similar reports. It is in such news reports that we, the general public, are presented with stories of personal ruin. The Times article concludes:
Tom Medley, 50, knows more than anybody the devastation that fixed-odds betting terminals can cause. Once a high-flying businessman, he has lost more than half a million pounds playing the machines. His addiction eventually also cost him his job, marriage and home.
Currently sleeping on his sister’s sofa, Mr Medley says his problems began when the machines started appearing at bookmakers in 2001.
“Before that I used to bet on the horses but it was under control. Then I started putting a few quid in the machines but it quickly escalated. They sucker you in. You chase your losses and before you know it you are playing huge stakes.
“I was earning good money at the time but I kept losing. One day I lost more than £9,000. I just couldn’t stop betting and now I have lost everything.”
Mr Medley ended up borrowing money to feed his addiction. “Once I took out a £10,000 loan from Sainsbury’s. The money came through the morning I was playing in a charity golf day. I was due on the tee at 10am and by then I’d blown £3,000 . Two weeks later the money had gone and I still owe it. Nobody at the time had any idea. That is the thing about gambling addiction, you can get away with it for ages because nobody notices. You don’t look ill like a junkie.”
“People don’t understand it is an illness. My wife couldn’t cope any more and I lost her.”
This news story, similar to very many others, brings to the foreground the essential components of the controversies. Its ‘case study’, one of many such reported in the media, provides powerful insights into individual ruin. Beneath the statistics, politics, campaign and counter-campaign the media have highlighted case after case of human suffering. Whether such stories are to count as ‘evidence’ is contested by some.
Media and English students in particular may be directed towards analysis of the media texts, especially the use of language and the appeals to ‘human interest’.
Newspapers also report on the less immediate aspects of the debates around Fixed Odds Betting Terminals. Parliamentary proceedings are a huge source of news for all mainstream media, and this is the case too for coverage of politics in relation to FOBties. The following, in The Daily Telegraph draws attention to some MPs’ concerns that campaigns against the machines are commercially motivated and not based on objective evidence:
The All Party Betting and Gaming Committee has taken issue with a “materially misleading” publicity drive by Derek Webb, who made almost £15m in the casino industry but is now leading an attack on bookmakers.
Having dubbed the fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) in the shops the “crack cocaine of gambling”, Mr Webb took out advertisements at the Lib Dem, Labour and Conservative party conferences calling for a clampdown on the machines.
Adverts from the “Campaign for Fairer Gambling” read: “Pull the plug on bookmakers’ addictive roulette machines”, asking: “Which side is your party on? The bookmakers’, or society’s?”.
The MPs’ gaming committee has complained to the Advertising Standards Authority over what it sees as a highly “subjective” campaign in which Mr Webb persistently portrays opinions as fact.
A letter, signed by Conservative MP Philip Davies, co-chairman of the 20-strong committee, complains that Mr Webb’s adverts present information that is “without objective substantation, factually inaccurate, denigratory, omits material information and expresses subjective opinion as if these are objective claims”.
The New Statesman, the weekly political current affairs and cultural magazine devoted a complete insert on FOBties which you can download here. The contents indicate the issues that are covered:
The New Statesman is considering a ‘left of centre’ magazine. Its ‘right of centre’ counterpart is The Spectator. Here you’ll find an opinion piece about FOBTies which demonstrates the wide divide beneath opinions – a diide perhaps not so much based on ‘evidence’ but upon underlying values and political principles.
Local media regularly cover the controversy. It’s a ‘live issue’, involves human interest, has immediate ;ocal relevance and involves local readers the chance to give their views. The Liverpool Echo, for instance, sent a reporter into a betting shop to play a machine and report on his experience; meanwhile readers gave their own opinions:
Many readers on Facebook said addiction was a complex issue, and people would find another way to gamble if the machines were banned.
Meanwhile others had little sympathy for those affected, saying it was down to individuals to steer clear.
Beverley Shea said: “I don’t gamble myself. But if you take these machines away, they’ll gamble in other ways. It’s just like over eating, shall we take away all foods, destroy them because of it?
I’m an over-eater, banish it all I’d probably eat my fella and my family. You’ll always find a way.”
Kay Mckenna shared the same view, writing: “Crack down the machines all you want and they’ll go online and fine websites… people with gambling addictions need help just like a drug addict and alcoholic.”
And Trish Antonucci said: “The issue is addiction not the gambling machines….there will always be some sort of vice for an addictive personality … prohibition is not the answer .. deal with addictive personality.”
Martin Vale was one of those who said he had no sympathy with people who spent their money on the machines, posting: “No-one pushed him in the door, I’ve no sympathy for people who know what they’re doing, and then look for someone to blame.”
Lee John Barber said: “Everything starts with a choice, play them or you don’t play them, nobody force’s anybody to play them, grow up and take responsibility for your own actions.”
Students could consider whether the unsympathetic comments from ‘ordinary people’ have been slected to invite reponse from ‘the other side’. Nevertheless, this sort of attitude is found very commonly on social media sites.
Finally, local news also covers local political debate around the issues. Here The Newham Recorder follows up on Newham Council’s campaign for fixed odd betting machines to have their maximum stake lowered from £100 to £2 with an item about the Mayor’s calling for further research on the economic impact claimed bythe bookmakers’ industry.