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…gambling adverts?

The UK government's new restrictions on adverts for online casinos are an insult to the public.

Alex Hochuli

Topics Politics

Alex Hochuli thinks the UK government’s new restrictions on adverts for online casinos are an insult to the public.

The UK government has recently imposed restrictions and bans on the advertising of alcohol and junk food; now its crusade to protect the public from its own worst instincts will extend to gambling, too. New regulations on advertisements for gambling outlets, introduced under the 2005 UK Gambling Act, will come into force on 1 September. And they just about sum up the government’s fondness for ‘soft’ censorship.

New Labour has a conflicted relationship with gambling, as evidenced in its numerous u-turns over the mooted ‘super-casinos’. First, the government unveiled plans to build a number of very large casinos across the country; then it partially rolled back the plans following a storm of criticism. Tellingly, one of prime minister Gordon Brown’s first actions when he took over at Number 10 was to scrap the super-casinos plan altogether. Then, in early August, the new secretary of state for culture, media and sport, James Purnell, said he would make ‘no apology for banning adverts’ for certain gambling websites.

About 1,000 gambling websites will be affected by the ban. Any website based outside of the European Economic Area (EEA) will not be allowed to advertise its services in the UK unless it can demonstrate a ‘satisfactory’ regulatory regime: this must include implementing safeguards against fraud and other crime, and protecting young and vulnerable people from being drawn into an addictive relationship with the site. The affected online casinos and bookmakers include Betfred, Interpoker.com, Littlewoodscasino.com and William Hill’s online operations. William Hill has announced that it will relocate its web operations to Gibraltar in order to circumvent the ban (1).

Under pressure from Purnell, the gambling industry itself agreed two weeks ago to implement a voluntary pre-9pm watershed ban on gambling adverts applying to all websites, irrespective of where they are based. The failure of the government to impose a total ban – and the fact that it still has a generally liberal approach to gambling alongside a newfound desire to restrict the operations of certain sites – has led to accusations of inconsistency (2). More generous observers might argue that the government’s mixed-up attitude to gambling is actually consistent with its obsession with ‘balancing freedoms’, where (in NewLabourspeak) new rights must always come with tough new responsibilities. So, let them gamble – but stop foreign sites from advertising their wares.

However, the many qualifications to the ban on gambling ads, and the emphasis on voluntary codes of behaviour and advertising, should not distract from the true nature of this latest piece of censorious legislation.

At the heart of the legislation lies New Labour’s petty authoritarianism. Initially, the government wanted to enforce an outright ban on the advertising of casinos and gambling sites, but it dropped that idea in March 2007. The current, watered-down ban, due to come into force at the beginning of September, still prescribes a number of ‘social responsibility’ rules that gambling advertisers must adhere to. For example, ads must not make any association between gambling and sexual or financial success. And all future TV ads will have to direct viewers to gambleaware.com, a government initiative to be launched in early September. Like its alcoholic cousin, drinkaware.com, the site will provide advice about ‘responsible behaviour’. Labour’s paternalistic attitude to gamblers is most clear in Purnell’s proud declaration: ‘Protection is my number one priority.’

Never mind the fact that, according to the most recent studies, only 0.6 to 0.8 per cent of the population can be classed as ‘problem gamblers’ (3). Or that the popularity of gambling – three-quarters of the population claim to have taken part in some sort of gambling in the past – precedes the advent of magazine adverts for Ladbrokes or the casino network Mansion’s sponsorship of Tottenham Hotspur FC. The government seems to have such a dim view of people that it believes if we merely glimpse a green velvet table during an ad break we will be propelled towards a life of poker-fuelled debt.

The ban may ostensibly be directed at children (for example, it calls for the removal of the names of gambling companies from replica football kits for kids), and it may be aimed at cracking down on sites hosted in countries with less fastidious regulatory regimes than Britain’s – yet the curbs on gambling ads should still be understood as censorship nonetheless.

As Purnell’s comment about ‘protection’ indicates, the government sees its role as safeguarding the people from harmful or seductive images or invitations. In its war against apparently evil tempting adverts, casino bosses, breweries, tobacco companies, junk food manufacturers and the rest provide easy targets; the public is not likely to complain if big corporations are censored by government. Yet what really lurks behind these new bans on the adverts of big companies is the idea that citizens cannot control their urges, and thus they need the guiding hand of the powers-that-be to keep them on the straight and narrow.

The new gambling ban captures many New Labourite prejudices. It expresses the authorities’ fear and loathing of the world wide web and its boundless freedoms. The ‘sinternet’, as it is perceived by the authorities, is largely beyond the purview of government, and therefore it is seen as a suspicious and dangerous arena (4). Thus, the principal targets of the ban are websites that may not be subject to trading legislation as stringent as the UK’s. This is an attempt to use legislation to control our knowledge of what exists on the web and to prescribe how we should interact with such web material.

Again, the assumption is that masses of undiscerning web users are sitting around waiting to be ripped off by unscrupulous online casinos. The reality, however, as indicated by one of the government’s own reports on online gambling, is rather different: for a majority of web surfers, a website’s reputation is the key factor in their decision about whether or not to use it (5). Believe it or not, people are usually more savvy than to gamble away thousands of pounds on a dodgy website. The ban on advertising assumes a passive, uncritical gaming public, who are the potential victims of the slightest intimation that gambling may be fun. And fun, as the government never hesitates to remind us, is the first step on the road to ruin.

The advertising restrictions show the government’s marked disregard for freedom of speech. In effectively closing off one channel of communication – that between advertisers and citizens – while simultaneously directing people to sites such as gambleaware.com, the authorities are attempting to have the final say on gambling at all times. A large part of freedom of speech is the freedom to hear – to choose what information we listen to, what we absorb and what we discard. The restrictions on gambling ads reduce individuals in the eyes of the law to barely-conscious automatons, who need only the merest prodding to risk their mortgages on another throw of the dice.

Unpopular though it may be, defending the right of a gaming website registered in the Caribbean to attract us with their cut-price virtual Vegas is important. Advertising has been made into a political issue by the authorities; their attempt to control advertising is really about controlling us, the public, and protecting us from allegedly wallet-thinning, liver-threatening, belly-fattening behaviour. Standing up for free speech and independence today will involve challenging the government’s petty restrictions on adverts.

Alex Hochuli works at the Institute of Ideas and co-edits the Manifesto Club’s freedom blog, Speaking Our Mind.

Read on:

Who’s Afraid of…?

(1) Minister gives gambling websites free rein to advertise in Britain, Guardian, 10 August 2007

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Topics Politics

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