Thoughts on a betting documentary.

The Big Step’s thoughts on The Paul Merson Documentary.

As soon as Paul Merson’s documentary was released I couldn’t wait to watch it due to the significance of the subject it encaptures. I’d spoken to ‘The Big Step’ about gambling before but I wanted to find out exactly what the trouble is like through the eyes of an Arsenal great. I personally thought the documentary was enlightening and it touched on more than I could’ve asked it to. However, to hear more about the show and how it had been received by those with more knowledge than myself about the industry, I spoke to ‘The Big Step’ once again.

When the show first got media attention, when it was first announced that the show was going to be released, what were your thoughts and how important do you believe it is that attention is given to the problem of gambling?

Gambling with Lives (of which The Big Step is a part of) was contacted by the production company when the show was being planned, as they wanted to feature some of the families that we support and have bereaved by gambling-related suicide (referenced in question 5). From the off, we were confident that this programme was going to be a positive thing and look constructively at how the gambling industry operates. We were very pleased that it was given a prime time slot at 9pm too, which shows how important the issue is becoming.

With Paul Merson’s experience in the game, how significant do you believe that it is his voice that is speaking out on a topic as hard-hitting as this? Does it surprise you in some way that people of such sporting experience can be trapped in a world of sport betting and what surrounds that?

It’s really great that Paul has been so open about his experiences. His standing within the game makes him an important role model, so it’s really helpful that he’s been so candid about his experiences with addiction. It doesn’t surprise us at all that people in the sports world are affected by gambling disorder – as Paul mentioned in the programme, they are often far from home, with time and money on their hands and surrounded by a rampant betting culture.

Through watching the show, how interesting did you find certain aspects of it? For example, when they were showing the brain activity through a scan and it showed how engrossed Merson’s brain was to gambling in comparison to that of a healthy person who would be attracted to family bonding and nature. Was this a test that had ever crossed your mind before?

We thought the brain scan part was very interesting, but what really stuck with us was how the gambling industry cultivates and sustains addiction. In Matt Zarb-Cousin’s part, he explains how the industry hold all the data necessary to stop gambling addiction and harm, but instead of using it to help people, they use it to make more money and cause more harm. He also explained that 60% of the industry’s profits (£14bn plus a year) come from just 5% of gamblers. As Matt himself put it: “Your gambling addiction is their business model.”

Do you believe that anything was missing from the show that you may have wanted to be included in or do you think that the hour covered everything greatly? 

There was quite a bit of footage that was cut from the section near the end with the families, specifically talking about the language of addiction that we would have liked included. Language is very key in framing the debate. For example, ‘problem gambler’ (widely used term to refer to someone with gambling disorder) suggests that the problem is with the individual and that they are somehow faulty. Gambling addiction is a classified mental health disorder – called gambling disorder – and can affect anyone. It works in the industry’s favour to push the ‘problem gambler’ narrative, as it frames the debate as a few ‘weak’ people who have a problem with gambling, and deflects attention away from an industry that are deliberating, encouraging and sustaining addiction.

Paul Merson sat around a table with others talking about the way that gambling companies entice people to place money with them for a bet. What were your thoughts on the adverts that included music such as ‘Sweet Caroline’ etc to make it seem like you have to gamble to enjoy yourselves? What are your overall thoughts on gambling adverts?

The gambling industry makes a lot of money and they are very good at doing it. Sweet Caroline is a good example as the song was adopted by England fans during Euro 2020, which was obviously a good tournament for us, so Ladbrokes knew exactly what they were doing when they used it. They wanted to evoke those feelings of happiness and associate them with their brand. Much like smoking, gambling is a dangerous product that we believe shouldn’t be advertised. We don’t think gambling should be banned at all, but it needs to be subject to much tougher regulation, which would include banning advertising. Important to note that this won’t stop those who want to from gambling – I haven’t seen a cigarette advert in 20 years but I know where to buy them from. What it will do is stop gambling from permeating mainstream culture and ensure children don’t grow up thinking gambling is a normal, safe and fun activity.   

What were your thoughts on the company’s messages at the end of the show and do you believe that the Gambling Commission could do much more than they currently are? The Betting and Gambling Council said that they completely reject any suggestion that the industry targets vulnerable customers whilst William Hill stated that 20% of their advertising is about time-outs and how people can bet responsibly and safely.

Frankly, we thought these messages were insulting. It shows how out of touch the industry is and that they are unwilling to engage and acknowledge the harm they are causing. With regards to player controls and responsible gambling messages, there’s absolutely no evidence to show that these have any effect whatsoever, which is actually why they use them, as it sustains their profits. It demonstrates a clear misunderstanding of addiction too: someone who is addicted to anything is robbed of their ability to think and act rationally – it’s a bit like advertising heroin with a ‘please use responsibly’ message!

Where does the future of ‘The Big Step’ lie in terms of plans and projects that the group is currently completing or about to start? How could people find out more or get involved if they wanted to?

We’ve recently partnered with Dulwich Hamlet FC and held a walking event before their game last weekend, and then had a fantastic reception at the game itself. We’ll continue partnering with clubs and asking them to say no to gambling sponsorship money. For the latest news and content, keep an eye on our twitter (@the_bigstep).

‘For the latest news and content, keep an eye on our twitter, ‘@the_bigstep’

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