WrB Insight: BBC TV show points to a new era of transparency

WrB speaker Fiona Thorne has highlighted the importance of openness for the gambling sector

It was one of the boldest decisions made by a gambling company in recent years, but inviting the BBC’s cameras behind the scenes at Gala Coral could point to a successful new direction for the industry, according to Fiona Thorne, the betting operator’s director of corporate affairs.

Thorne will be a panel speaker in a session entitled ‘Beyond regulation: Building the business case for Responsible Gambling and developing a sustainable future’ at this year’s World Regulatory Briefing (WrB) on September 10, with the discussion set to focus on how the industry can benefit from embracing social responsibility.

Thorne, who is also a member of the Senet Group’s board, believes that the gaming sector’s success would be boosted by improving transparency, and that it has encouraged suspicion and criticism in the past through not allowing the public to know more about its operations.

This was a key factor in proceeding with the three-part BBC One series ‘Britain at the Bookies’, in which millions of primetime television viewers were invited behind the scenes at Coral betting shops and the company’s head office.

“It was a long time in gestation, but the business weighed it up and eventually decided to go ahead,” said Thorne, the former chief executive of communications agency Fishburn Hedges.

“The rationale for agreeing to do it was twofold. One was that the gambling sector generally doesn’t get a good press from the mainstream media, and we felt that the reality that our customers see and the enjoyment they gain from a legitimate part of the leisure industry is not really covered.

“Secondly, the industry wants to move to a place where it is more transparent and accountable, and we can show people that we can marry our leisure product with responsibility. We knew it would look at tough issues involving problem gambling, and how we look to deal with them.

“It certainly wasn’t a risk-free decision, but the response has been hugely positive. We have had lovely notes from customers and others within the industry, who knew what a big call it was.”

While the jovial relationship between punters and shop assistants made for enjoyable viewing, footage of problem gambler Stuart left penniless after putting his benefit cash into a betting machine was a tougher watch.

However, the way the company dealt with Stuart’s addiction and the fact he is no longer gambling gave Thorne great optimism about Coral’s current strategy and also hardened her resolve to improve self-exclusion policies across the industry.

“I’m very pleased that Stuart isn’t gambling anymore,” she said. “Is it hard to watch someone like Stuart? Of course.

“It makes me think that all things we are doing around responsible gambling are very much real. Some people suggest it is just PR puff, but look at Stuart and look what happens when we get our responsible gambling strategy right.

“It’s important to look at how self-exclusion can be made easier. If you are Stuart it’s probably quite difficult to approach five or six different companies and self-exclude each time.

“If you can get to a place where a customer can go to one place and give them details and say please exclude me from all operators, that would be ideal. There are talks taking place to that end, we are just not quite there yet.”

This year’s WrB will bring together senior figures from gaming companies, regulators, charities and other industries to discuss responsible gambling and the sector’s reputation at the London event.

The discussion in which Thorne is participating will look at how the industry can take a more united approach towards corporate social responsibility and also how senior figures within companies should lead the way in implementing values.

The latter point is key for Thorne, who made it clear to Gala Coral chief executive Carl Leaver last year that she would only join the company if it was truly committed to a social responsibility strategy.

“When I came to Gala Coral, I said to Carl that I thought the industry was at a really critical point,” she recalled. “It could either keep fighting, or it could admit that there is more it could do. I said that it needs to change how it behaves. It can’t just spin its way out of trouble because it will get found out in this era of transparency.

“I said that if Gala Coral was interested in bringing in someone who would challenge existing behaviour then I would be really interested, but if they were looking for someone to spin, then don’t hire me. Fortunately, they chose to hire me.

“Unity is also very important, which is why the launch of the Senet Group and the introduction of the Association of British Bookmakers’ Code for Responsible Gambling are key.

“There is no point in one company trying to do things on its own. Firstly, it would be disadvantageous to that particular company but, more importantly, a united front means a united response to help a person with a gambling problem.”

For more information about WrB at Millbank Tower in London on September 10, visit www.wrbriefing.com

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