Losing The Information War

The gaming industry in the UK is in a struggle for its life. Anti-gaming activists are spreading lies and half-truths, and the industry is on its heels, says leading gambling consultant Steve Donoughue, and it’s time to regroup

Losing The Information War

With the horrors of Russia’s barbaric attack on Ukraine filling our timelines, we will have all noticed that as well as a more traditional kinetic war, there also exists a conflict about information. Fortunately, it does seem that the Ukrainian’s are winning this, showing the world in video that they are literally sticking two fingers up to the invading neighbors and valiantly fighting on.

Every now and again you will find, even on this social media platform, Putin’s apologists, spewing the hogwash arguments that Russia was provoked by NATO’s expansion onto their borders and that the Ukrainian government are ‘drug taking Nazis’. These ‘useful idiots’ and ‘bots’ are trying to do their maniacal master’s bidding and convince the world’s hard of thinking that there is some justification for these war crimes being inflicted on the Ukrainian people. By using lies and half-truths and in some cases blatantly staged theatre, the Russians want to mangle the truth so they can appear to the deluded that they are in fact the defenders from aggression and on the right side of history. Luckily, the sheer weight of evidence shows this is just twaddle and that a long time in jail for war crimes is the least worst options for these ethno-nationalist terrorists.

It is incredibly trivial and hyperbolic to compare the awful bloodshed of Ukraine with the battle for Britain’s gambling industry’s future, but on the most basic level of information warfare there are unfortunately many similarities. Regrettably in this battlespace, it’s the bad guys that are winning and it doesn’t seem like the forces of light, the gambling industry, have even found out how to make a Molotov cocktail yet.

A prime example was the debate held in the House of Lords on March 1, 2022 on gambling advertising. To continue with the war analogy, this was a skirmish on an important secondary front, overall victory here for either side could determine the outcome of the overall war.

While the politics of British gambling is primarily an executive decision, one made by the government of the day, with the gambling Minister mostly responsible for the strategic direction, the ability of either House (Lords or Commons) to amend proposed legislation or even worse, vote it down is a very real consideration. Let us not forget that it was the defeat in the Lords of the Gambling (Geographical Distribution of Casino Premises Licences) Order 2007 on March 28, 2007 that put an end to the Regional Casino license for Manchester and it was the potential defeat in the Commons to the Statutory Instrument that set the stakes and prizes limits for Category B gaming machines (fixed odds betting terminals) that made the government go for a £2 stake that effectively abolished these machines in May 2018.[i]

To have a debate on gambling in the House of Lords where only one speaker could be considered in anyway supportive (albeit quite tenuously) shows us two things. First, it shows that gambling has little active support in the Upper House. That’s not to say that there are over a hundred Lords who would work tirelessly night and day to defend anything horseracing, just that the majority don’t see the linkage between gambling regulation and the fortunes of racing. If they could be educated then it would be a different story. The second thing it shows is that there is no coordinating going on behalf the industry on the red benches. While the debate was packed out by members of the Peers for Gambling Reform, indirectly financially supported by a foreign-based multi-millionaire who also similarly supports the All Party Group on Gambling Harms and much of the dubious research that we will discuss below, there appears to be a total absence of influence from those supporting the gambling industry, a lack of foreign based multi-millionaire companies defending the British industry.

It should be stated that this was only a short debate—54 minutes to be precise. Its importance in the big scheme of things may have been considered not worth the candle. But I suspect from the conversations that I have had with Lords interested in gambling, that there was no one to motivate them or give them something to say to support our industry.

By way of contrast, Interel Consulting, an international public affairs company with offices in Europe, China and India, who don’t mention the work they do in the anti-gambling camp on their website, have been active in supporting the war against the FOBTs and are now helping the anti-gambling Peers with their campaign against online. They’re a bit like the mercenaries that Putin has used in Syria and Africa and who now have infiltrated into Kyiv. Experts, motivated by money, designing the attack lines that the anti-gambling brigade are using to try and convince the uninitiated and uninformed, i.e. the government and other Parliamentarians.

The weapons that they use are the falsehoods and mistruths that are the products of supposed research by supposed academics. We can be confident to mock the terms research and academics as they hold little resemblance to the expected meaning of the words. A bit like when the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov states that the Ukrainians have been shelling themselves or that civilian escape routes that have been mined are ‘safe’. What we have are activist academics pedaling dodgy research as evidence. The problem for the gambling industry is that this ‘research’ goes very much unchallenged and thus becomes “evidence” in evidence-based policy making.[ii]

What Interel has most likely provided the Peers for Gambling Reform with is a list of key messages to hammer home their argument for prohibiting gambling. In politics, messaging is everything. As we know from Blair’s Education, Education, Education and more recently, Boris’s Get Brexit Done, the task of any campaigning politician is to keep the message simple and repeat it often. That is why the untruths and half-truths trundled out in this short debate will be repeated, and already have been, time and time again. We saw the same thing with the FOBT debate. The blatantly untrue statement that you could lose £15,000 in an hour was repeated by the anti-FOBT campaigners for years and it stuck.[iii] This is why we call them ‘Zombie memes’. They’re very difficult to kill, especially the gambling industry does next to nothing to decapitate them. Then, as now, those paid to defend the industry from such attacks, are allowing these lies to gain traction and become part of the accepted structure of any gambling debate.

These Zombie memes are specifically chosen for their emotive appeal. The prohibitionists understand that most Parliamentarians know nothing of the gambling industry and care even less. This monumental industry lobbying failure allows for the prohibitionists to focus on those subjects any human being understands, using faulty research to suggest that gambling is the cause and then allow the Parliamentarian to come to the ‘obvious’ conclusion. Let’s take biggest emotional ‘weapon’ that of gambling related suicide as an example, mentioned numerous times in the Lords debate.

[i] The government announced their £2 decision in a document published in May 2018 by DCMS called government response to the consultation on proposals for changes to Gaming Machines and Social Responsibility Measures. This was implemented by Statutory Instrument 2018:1402 The Gaming Machine (Miscellaneous Amendments and Revocation) Regulations 2018

[ii] Regulus Partners appear to be the only organization that consistently calls out the disinformation in academic research on gambling.

[iii] It was only possible to lose £15,000 in an hour if you a) never won anything, and b) could physically feed the amount of money into the machine in time. No one, to my knowledge has ever proven it possible.

Articles by Author: Steve Donoughue

Steve Donoughue has been a management consultant specializing in the business strategy and politics of the gambling industry for over 25 years. Becoming KPMG's gambling consultant after working at the University of Salford's Centre for the Study of Gambling, Donoughue has been a freelance consultant for the majority of his career, working around the world on both online and bricks and mortar projects. He has advised most of the major operators and suppliers, governments, trade associations and regulators over this period. Most recently Donoughue has advised the government of the Turks & Caicos Islands on overhauling their gambling laws and the Dutch Finance Ministry on Casinos Holland. He has spoken at, chaired and designed a multitude of gambling conferences over the years and has published many articles, mostly on UK gambling politics. Donoughue is the Secretariat of the UK Parliamentary All Party Betting & Gaming Group, a part-time PhD student researching the history of the Gambling Act 2005 and in 2011/12, Steve was special adviser to the UK Parliament's Culture, Media & Sport Select Committee inquiry into gambling. Donoughue runs www.GamblingConsultant.co.uk Limited, the UK's leading licensing and compliance advisory service.