Gambling in the media: Dr Mark Griffiths interview part one
In the first section of Right Casino’s interview with Dr Mark Griffiths, we discuss the representation of gambling in the British media. Does gambling have a PR problem? Are all media outlets anti-gambling? Is any of the criticism we receive justified? Dr Griffiths gives us the scoop…
Right Casino: Hi! Today we’re interviewing Dr Mark Griffiths at Nottingham Trent University. Just to start us off Mark, I was hoping you could briefly summarise the kinds of research you do.
Dr Griffiths: Okay. I’ve spent the last twenty seven years studying gambling. My main areas [have] looked at problem gambling. Not that I’m anti-gambling in the slightest. Obviously I think the gaming industry and we as researchers should be concerned about those where gambling affects their lives, their finances, everything that people do. I think what’s amazing in this country is that people often perceive me as being public enemy number one because I research problem gambling. Yet my friends that research problem drinking, no one ever accuses them of being anti-drinking.
There is a culture in this country that if you in any way attack the industry for the products that they put out there and people get into problems, they take it personally. Of course I think we should be working together. Surely in terms of a long term business model, problem gamblers are not good in terms of making profits because they’ve got such short shelf life. I also think that the kind of business models that gambling operators should be doing is instead of using the kind of 90/10 rule where 10% of the customers generate 90% of the profits, they should be going for – if you look at Camelot for instance. They’ve got the vast majority of the population spending small amounts of money and making huge profits and I would like to see that convert to the slot machine industry in the casino sector, bingo sector because I think that would be better for all of us.
Right Casino: Wonderful. Well, we’ve touched on quite a few core points of the interview so let’s try and list those one by one. First off, I’d like to start with some questions about the perceptions about gambling in British media. Over the past year, the mainstream media has been pretty vocal in its criticisms of the gambling industry. The Guardian went with a headline ‘Roulette Machines: The Crack Cocaine of Gambling,’ while the Daily Mail reported ‘A Terrifying Parable of the Addictive Power of Internet Gambling.’ What do you make of this criticism and do you feel it is any way justified?
Dr Griffiths: I think when you talk about the media is that the media’s job is to report news but they like to report bad news. It’s amazing. Whenever I do a piece of research if it’s a good news story, maybe 10% of the papers will pick it up. If it’s a bad news story 90% of the papers will pick it up. Basically misery and bad things sell newspapers.
I don’t think it’s actually they’re anti-gambling. It’s just that they’re anti-everything if it does something wrong within society. Of course there’s some papers like the Daily Mail who the editor’s got a particular thing about gambling and is very anti-gambling. It doesn’t surprise me that the Mail consistently come up with negative stories.
But to be honest it’s very hard to have a positive gambling story. I mean a positive gambling story is usually reflecting big lottery winners, something that usually the companies want to put into the papers. But it doesn’t surprise me that addiction is what sells newspapers. If it’s a gambling addiction then they hope that readers will want to actually read those kinds of things.
Right Casino: Following from that, if it’s the case that it’s substantially harder to put out a positive gambling story versus a negative story, [does] that in any way suggest that negative content is justified? Does it suggest there are fewer positive stories to tell about gambling?
Dr Griffiths: The bottom line is that all research consistently shows that a small minority of gamblers do get into trouble with the activity they’re engaged in. The consequence of that means that the vast majority of people who gamble don’t have any problems at all but that doesn’t sell newspapers. A story that says most people enjoy gambling is not going to make news. Whereas 1% of the population addicted to gambling. I mean I don’t believe there is 1% addicted to gambling. One of the problems we’ve got is when we do studies we actually rarely mention the word addiction. We’ll talk about things like pathological or problem gambling and the press then equates that as equalling addiction.
For instance what’s called the British Gambling Prevalence Survey, which we do every few years’. The latest survey said that 0.9% of Britons have a gambling problem. Press interpreted that as nearly 1% are addicted. The thing is that all gambling addicts are problem gamblers but not all problem gamblers are addicts. Problem gambling could just mean that you spend far too much of your disposable income on gambling but it may not be indicative of addiction. That is one of the problems we’ve got is that the press will use and interchange words to suit their story. I do think we have to contextualise this. I’ve spent over a quarter of a century researching gambling problems and yes we know that a small but significant minority have problems. The number of people that are genuinely addicted in the same way that people are addicted to alcohol or heroin and other things is actually very, very small because there are very key criteria to what addiction actually is.
But of course if somebody turns around and says I’m a problem gambler and then that problem might be that it’s causing relationship problems or it’s causing financial problems that would be defined within the British Gambling Prevalence Survey probably as a problem. But you’d be amazed that the number of problem gamblers who are genuinely addicted to gambling, at least how I define it is actually very, very small.
Right Casino: Okay. Well, we’re going to touch on that issue of addiction. That’s fantastic that we have this kind of summary. Do you think the media is categorically anti-gambling or is it merely critical of the gambling industry in its current form? Is there a capacity for the media to be positive about gambling if it were to change?
Dr Griffiths: I don’t think that the national British press are anti-gambling per say but at the end of the day they are running a business and they have to sell newspapers or they have to get subscriptions online. As I say, I think if you’re pointing out really bad things have happened more people are likely to read that. We as human beings we always like to compare ourselves to other people. In psychology terms we call it social comparison theory. It’s a bit like keeping up with the Jones’. When you read about the misery of somebody else, it makes you feel better and in fact most newspapers stories are about death and destruction and misery and addiction.
These are the kinds of things that editors believe people want to read because it makes people feel better about themselves. I don’t think the British press on the whole is anti-gambling but that’s not to say there aren’t some editors out there that have an anti-gambling stance. I think most people would agree if you look at the Daily Mail coverage over the last six or seven years, it has been really anti-gambling and it really tries to make a mountain out of a molehill.
I’ll give you an example. In 2006 I ended up on the front page of the Daily Mail and the headline was Gambling with a Generation. The first line basically said British psychologist says millions of children will become addicted to gambling. Right now this was just total poppycock.
The journalist was a guy called Tim Shipman who now works at the Washington Post. I said to myself I’m not going to be interviewed by – for instance one of my findings, which was in a study that we did. We found that 4% of all juvenile crime in one particular city was related to slot machine playing. That was then reported as one in four youngsters had committed crimes because of gambling. To take 4% and make it one in four it’s just shocking journalism.
Now as I say, Paul Decker, the editor of the Daily Mail is consistently being kind of anti-gambling and I’m sure that’s why a lot of anti-gambling stories get into the Daily Mail. That doesn’t stop me from being interviewed by them because I like to get my point across. But again if you look at all the stories I personally have been involved with the Daily Mail over the last year, nearly all of them involve things like gambling via Facebook and it’s all about trying to point out that millions of women or children are going to have problems with this activity. Of course I never said that at all but of course one quote can be taken out of context to actually sell that particular story.
Right Casino: The problem is to steer away from any apocalyptic prophesies.
Dr Griffiths: No.
Right Casino: Okay, why do you think gambling is so heavily demonised when arguably more destructive vices like alcohol and junk food escape the same level of scrutiny by the media?
Dr Griffiths: I actually disagree with that. I don’t just research in gambling addictions. I research in most behavioural addictions including things like video game addiction, exercise addiction, sex addiction. My work touches on things like obesity. I was part of the government’s working group on sedentary behaviour.
In terms of what comes out in the papers I can tell you now obesity is one of those things that is just as lambasted as gambling. I don’t believe that gambling is demonised any more. Obviously I think most people accept that alcohol when taken to access is problematic. Most people know that alcohol is potentially an addictive drug.
Now that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be doing it. I mean I drink alcohol. I love drinking alcohol. I think most people who partake actually like that particular activity. But I know that a small proportion of the population get into trouble with it. Gambling is another one of those consumptive behaviours. Like alcohol it’s kind of socially condoned, socially accepted but when taken to access can lead to problems. But I think most people’s conception of alcoholism and heroin addiction versus things like gambling addiction is that I think alcohol and heroin might be seen as more medically legitimate than gambling. I think there are some people out there that would probably say that gambling is that person’s own fault. It’s due to weak will or whatever and they don’t think it’s a genuine problem.
But I would argue is that just like alcohol, gambling is one of those activities. Yes there are individual risk factors but the way that gambling is marketed or advertised, the way the games are actually designed and developed does mean that vulnerable and susceptive individuals can get into problems.
Right Casino: Okay. Why do you think the media is apparently unwilling to regard gambling in moderation as a legitimate form of entertainment? Why isn’t it willing to take that stance?
Dr Griffiths: Again I would disagree that it isn’t willing to take that stance. I think there are loads and loads of gambling stories as I say but most of them tend to be more negative because I believe that’s what they think will sell papers or what people want to read. Sorry, what was the – don’t know where I was going there. What was the question again?
Right Casino: Why do you feel that the media is apparently unwilling to regard gambling in moderation as a legitimate form of entertainment?
Dr Griffiths: Okay. I suppose gambling in moderation is one of those activities that because it costs money for people to do, particularly in the time of the recession where I suppose there’s not a lot of money about. Is that spending your, if you like, your finite leisure pound on gambling rather than something that’s more productive or at least what the papers see as more productive would lead to people viewing that negatively. Now of course in the recession, there are two views about what happens to gambling in a recession. Some people argue that because it’s a recession there’s not a lot of money around so people try to maximise their kind of financial outlay by actually gambling and trying to win more money because they can’t get it through their job.
For other people because they haven’t got much money gambling is an activity that would just drop out of their kind of leisure repertoire because they can’t afford to do it. My guess is both those things cancel each other out. However if you look at for instance the number of new book makers that have sprung up in the last couple of years does suggest that gambling is one of those things that might be recession proof but it doesn’t seem to be negatively affected by the recession.
Right Casino: Having said that, that might very well be true in the UK. We’ve done a separate study – we looked at travel to Las Vegas and they’ve taken an absolute nosedive since the global recession in 2008. It does seem to indicate that casino tourism if you like isn’t recession proof in the way that perhaps…
Dr Griffiths: Oh, there’s a difference between being you know, the example of Las Vegas. I went to Las Vegas in June and I took whole of my family to Caesar’s hotel, Caesar’s Palace and we stayed there. The thing about that of course that cost me £4,000 just to get there before I’m even gambling. If there was a kind of Las Vegas type casino on somebody’s back doorstep, I think even in a recession people would actually flock to go to there. The fact that the number of trips to Las Vegas is down is just the pure prohibited costs of actually getting to Las Vegas in the first place. It’s not to do with gambling in itself.
Right Casino: Okay, last question about media coverage.
Dr Griffiths: Okay.
Right Casino: What do you make of media outlets, such as The Sun, that condemn gambling in its coverage but sanction it as a business opportunity by running a bingo platform? Isn’t this just blatant hypocrisy?
Dr Griffiths: Okay, well it’s just totally hypocritical. Any newspaper that’s anti-gambling and then actually profits from people gambling either through their website or through some kind of their product is just – I can’t think of another word other than hypocrisy.
Right Casino: That was what we felt as well. Glad you agree there.