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The ban that wasn’t: The Guardian’s stance on gambling ads

| By Jon Bruford | Reading Time: 4 minutes
The Guardian’s decision to ban gambling advertising is another sweeping statement that fails to push forward real change, writes Jon Bruford.
Guardian newspapers

Up front, I have to say I am a Guardian reader, and have been for many years. I do read other news sources as well, but I think their investigative reporting is world-class. But as I’ve previously noted, when it comes to gambling, they’ve lost the plot.

So it came as little surprise when the Guardian Group announced it was banning all gambling ads in its pages from that point on. The announcement was made on 15 June and I believe it was with immediate effect. This impacts the group by around £500,000 a year, so I’m sure it’s not a decision that was taken lightly.

I’ve got a few issues with it though. 

Over the years I feel like I’ve slipped through the net a bit with the newspaper, snuck in and read it through the back door. I’m not their target market and I read quite specifically what I want in it. Why? Because so much of the paper is for the middle-classes. Columnists with no connection to reality for most of us, talking about things I will never experience.

The decision about gambling advertising reeks of the newspaper’s ingrained snobbery. Why? That’s a great question… Because it’s not about gambling. 

The gambling ad blackout that wasn’t

Guardian Media Group CEO Anna Bateson said of the decision, “Guardian journalists have reported on the devastating impact of the gambling industry in the UK and Australia, helping to shift the dial and ensure the issue remains high on the public agenda. Studies highlight a clear correlation between exposure to gambling advertising and increased intentions to engage in regular gambling.”

The paper’s own story said: “The ban covers all forms of gambling advertising, including promotions for sports betting, online casinos and scratchcards. It will apply worldwide to all of the company’s online and print outlets, including the Guardian, Observer, and Guardian Weekly.” Great, a blanket ban! Except it’s not. 

Lottery is excluded. 

Now, their wording definitely, very specifically says scratchcards. The ones you can play on most lottery websites and buy in newsagents everywhere in the world, pretty much.  And a form of gambling almost impossible to police. I’d bet real cash money – no pun intended – that no Guardian journalists have been standing outside newsagents in the rougher parts of the UK or Australia and documenting the demographic that is coming out with arms full of scratchies. 

Lottery is the acceptable, normalised face of gambling but, as I have said many times, if it’s a problem, treat it like it’s actually a problem. Picking and choosing like this makes zero sense and suggests pretty strongly that they do not fully understand what they’re protesting.

Picturing the problem

There are other issues, of course. I mean, we have a few seasons left of football shirts with gambling sponsors, for example. 

Are they going to lean on their photo desks to make sure they pick images that don’t show the shirt front clearly? Or give more column inches to those without a gambling sponsor? I’ve worked a photo desk and it’s a thankless job that really doesn’t need to be made more difficult. But hey, if you’re banning it, ban it. 

My main gripe with it though, comes as a sober man. I’ve not had any alcohol in coming up to six years. I had a great and very easy relationship with alcohol and that was the problem. We got on great. But in terms of social ills, there is very little that is even on the same continent as alcohol. 

The problem is normalisation; it’s sold everywhere, everyone drinks, it’s part of the world’s social lubrication. I’m an outsider in that respect. Well, not just that respect, but you get my meaning.

I venture onto the Guardian website to look up the story about the ban and on the home page what’s the advert for? A beer-related father’s day gift. 

If you’re worried about kids seeing gambling ads, I’m worried about them seeing an ad like that and thinking that’s what dads want, and that’s what they should aspire to get them. If you’re worried about harm and your readers, look no further than your own homepage. Hell, the paper has a regular wine column. But that’s fine, because everyone does it and what’s the harm?

Lazy and nonsensical

I’m not saying “YEAH BUT THIS IS WORSE” when it comes to gambling ads. That is a dreadful argument and ignores the real-life plight of people who are affected by disordered gambling. 

I’m absolutely not making light of that – in fact, it’s a good time to recognise that substance abuse is a frequent comorbidity of gambling and alcohol is by some distance the most common form of substance abuse in society worldwide. But let’s not get that in the way of you enjoying your middle-class glass of wine, eh Guardian readers? Because it’s not you drinkers, it’s them other ones.

What I’m really saying is, the paper has missed a huge opportunity to foment actual change. The “ban” is lazy, to say the least, and nonsensical in that lottery is considered acceptable. 

A swing and a miss

Bateson’s comment piece said: “Our concern lies with the pervasive nature of retargeted digital advertisements that trap a portion of sports fans in an addictive cycle.” 

OK, ban those then. Work with your advertisers and say “look, this isn’t what we want in the newspaper and here’s why”. Don’t take the money of people that won’t comply. Start a conversation, have a dialogue. Let’s be grownups about the conversation.

Except the next paragraphs starts “By taking a stand against gambling advertising”. Hang on, I can fix that. “By taking a selective stand against gambling advertising”. There you go. Invoice in the post. 

It continues: “The Guardian is committed to responsible advertising practices that will have a positive impact on society.” And they could so easily have actually done something with this. They could have held the industry to higher standards. They could have created change.

Another wasted opportunity thanks to a narrow field of vision, dressed up as a platform taking some moral high ground when it’s doing nothing of the sort. 

Jon Bruford headshot

Jon Bruford has been working in the gambling industry for over 17 years, formerly as managing editor of Casino International and presently as publishing director at The Gaming Boardroom, with Kate Chambers and Greg Saint. He owns a large dog with a sensitive stomach and spends his free time learning about stain removal.

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