Has 'Dark Money' prevented the proper look into FOBTs promised by David Cameron?

Posted On: 
14th April 2016

The Campaign for Fairer Gambling raises questions over right-wing think tanks and asks if they are influencing Government decisions on gambling policy.

Earlier this year a book by Jane Mayer titled, “Dark Money - the hidden history of the billionaires behind the rise of the radical right" was published. In her book Mayer explains how The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), which was founded in London in 1955, needed to be "cagey" and "disguise their organisation as neutral and non-partisan.

Jane Mayer, who also authored the New York Times bestseller, "The Dark Side - the inside story of how the war on terror turned into a war on American ideals", explains that the IEA was the grandfather of the libertarian right-wing think tanks. In her explanation she goes on to quote what one of the founders wrote at the time, stating it was:

"imperative that we give no indication in our literature that we are working to educate the public along certain lines which might be interpreted as having a political bias. In other words, if we said openly that we were re-teaching the economics of the free market, it might enable our enemies to question the charitableness of our motives."

A recent IEA press release also states, "IEA welcomes the end of state-funded lobbying". Christopher Snowdon, the IEA Head of Lifestyle Economics claims "charities and pressure groups should not be doing it [lobbying] with taxpayers’ money".

The IEA success in advocating this measure will be beneficial to the alcohol and sugar sectors and environmental polluters. This is because some state funding was going to charities campaigning respectively to reduce sugar content, increase minimum alcohol pricing and protect the environment.

The IEA itself also has charity status and therefore avoids paying tax. So who contributes to it?  Could it be the sugar and alcohol manufactures and toxic polluters? And do they get a tax break for their contributions and lobbying? Taxpayers are subsidising corporate interests when corporations minimise their tax contribution by lobbying politicians for their own commercial interests!

This one-sided arrangement shows how influential the IEA is over the present Tory government. Even the government itself has been exposed for using taxpayer funds to support government campaigning through Bell Pottinger against Scotland voting for independence.

Bell Pottinger has previously sponsored an IEA event at the Conservative Party Conference. Bell Pottinger also represents the Responsible Gambling Trust (RGT), whose Chair Neil Goulden recently resigned following exposure in the Guardian after he lobbied for the bookmakers. Could Bell Pottinger have been lobbying the government to accept the flawed RGT research into FOBTs?

At an IEA event at the Conservative conference both Mr Snowdon and John Whittingdale, now in charge at DCMS, spoke on the subject of "Give commercials a break - is advertising over-regulated?" Most people sensibly think that gambling advertising is under-regulated, but Mr Whittingdale, with his pro-bookie bias and anti-BBC bias will be happy with commercial TV gambling ads, regardless of the consequences.

Although the IEA is renowned for maintaining secrecy over its funding, it has been discovered that oil companies and tobacco companies, such as Bell Pottinger clients, have been major contributors. No prizes for guessing that the IEA is an organisation with strong links to the tobacco sector and one which has been critical of the smoking ban in public places. 

Mr Snowdon wrote an IEA "research" paper "The Crack Cocaine of Gambling?" on the subject of FOBTs, but it has nothing to do with real academic research. Mr. Snowdon identifies that the   first use of the term "crack cocaine of gambling" was attributed to Donald Trump talking about video keno in the 1980s.

He implies that Mr. Trump saw this product as taking business away from Trump Casinos but he ignores the fact that video keno was allowed in casinos, so invalidating his assumption. Regardless of your opinion of the Donald, it is clear that not everything he says is financially motivated.

Mr Snowdon then went on to imply that Derek Webb, the Campaign for Fairer Gambling founder was financially motivated, a false and malicious assertion. Mr Snowdon also failed to acknowledge that the first product on FOBTs was actually video keno.

Mr Snowdon has just written another column in the “Health” section of the Spectator (yes, the Spectator allows a pro-tobacco lobbyist to write about health!) and in it he attacks the recent FOBT articles in The Times, using his outdated and discredited “research”. He uses a favourite tactic of the bookies to focus on the prevalence of problem gambling rather than harm associated with particular products. Research evidence does show that FOBTs are the most addictive form of gambling. The term, "crack cocaine of gambling", is therefore valid in respect of FOBTs.

Mr Snowdon also talks about numbers of betting shops rather than their concentration on the high street, which the Association of Town and City Management state increased by 43% from 2004 to 2012. This was driven by the legitimisation of FOBTs in the 2005 Gambling Act, as bookmakers open multiple outlets in town centres to circumvent the cap of four FOBTs per betting shop.

So, have the bookies funded the IEA? Has the IEA lobbied politicians on behalf of the bookies? Why has Prime Minister David Cameron prevented a "proper look" at FOBTs despite promising this to the House over two years ago and why was a ministerial request for a FOBT specific review blocked at the top of government? Is Dark Money alive and well and kicking in the UK?