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The UK gambling industry has scored an own goal by politicising the debate around regulation, according to prominent gambling reform campaigner Matt Zarb-Cousin.

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Zarb-Cousin – who is a director at Clean Up Gambling and the former spokesperson for ex-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – was speaking at And More Media’s Reputation Matters event in October during a fireside chat with Dan Waugh of Regulus Partners.  

Zarb-Cousin previously suffered with gambling addiction and went on to co-found blocking software Gamban. Now, he believes the polarising nature of the debate around the government’s gambling review has only served to work against the industry and its interests.

“The problem with the discourse around the debate is that it is very heavily politicised,” said Zarb-Cousin, acknowledging a degree of irony due to his professional background in both politics and campaigning.

“When the gambling industry is in a position where its making political arguments and trying to almost create culture war wedge issues out of gambling, it is in the wrong place.

“Because frankly, the public is very much against the industry. And that isn’t because of the gambling reformers. It is because of how people currently perceive the industry,” he added.

Reputation matters

Zarb-Cousin believes the online gambling industry is wrong to suggest its current reputational crisis is merely a matter of perception, however.

He said the sector has failed to acknowledge a genuine, underlying issue in the way it conducts business, which has so far prevented a debate based on evidence from taking place.

Instead, both sides have been guilty of manipulating statistics for the purposes of political points scoring, he argues.

“If you don’t have space to engage in a constructive way, then it is going to be case of whoever shouts the loudest wins. Unfortunately for the industry, that is going to be the reformers.”
Matt Zarb-Cousin

“If you want to have an evidence-based debate, you have to set the standard and be disciplined, and you have to be what you want the debate to be,” said Zarb-Cousin.

“But if you keep saying things that are untrue, or come with a lot of spin attached, then you are endorsing that kind of debate.”

This approach, he argues, has come back to bite the UK’s regulated gambling industry, with wide-ranging regulation soon set to be implemented following Gambling Commission consultations on areas including stake limits for online slots and affordability checks.

Public support for reform

“If you have an industry that is unpopular, and the public supports a reform agenda, then you cannot fight fire with fire, because the priorities of government are entirely political,” he added.

Zarb-Cousin was also at the forefront of a successful campaign to implement more stringent limits across the UK’s land-based gambling sector, which resulted in maximum stakes on fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBT) being cut from £100 per spin to just £2 per spin in 2021.

He believes the Betting & Gaming Council (BGC), which was created as a single industry body and lobby group following the FOBT stake cuts, has failed to engage with the other side in a meaningful debate over gambling reform.

“I think the way the gambling industry has been represented has not helped their case in terms of the arguments that have been foregrounded and the manner in which the debate is being conducted,” said Zarb-Cousin.

Back in 2017, Zarb-Cousin was involved in a public Twitter spat with current BGC CEO Michael Dugher, himself a former Labour MP. Dugher has regularly described gambling reform campaigners as “prohibitionists” in the debate surrounding the gambling act review.

During that argument, Dugher referred to Zarb-Cousin as #rouletteboy, a hashtag interpreted by many as an unpleasant reference to Zarb-Cousin’s history of gambling addiction.

At the time, Dugher argued it referred to Zarb-Cousin’s connection to Derek Webb, the millionaire casino mogul who co-founded the Campaign for Fairer Gambling.

A different approach

Zarb-Cousin insists his criticism of the BGC is not personal, and points out that its predecessor – the Association of British Bookmakers – was always willing to engage.

“The FOBT debate was also a very polarising campaign but both sides were engaging in a very constructive way,” said Zarb-Cousin. “I think that changed when the BGC came along.

“I think they changed the momentum of the engagement and the debating strategy they employed has not worked out in the industry’s interest.

“It is a strategy that has polarised people. And if you don’t have space to engage in a constructive way, then it is going to be case of whoever shouts the loudest wins.

“And unfortunately for the industry, that is going to be the reformers. Because they have the public, they have the media and they have the politicians,” he added.