Ruling

02749-16 Association of British Bookmakers v The Times

    • Date complaint received

      18th August 2016

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 02749-16 Association of British Bookmakers v The Times

Summary of complaint

1. The Association of British Bookmakers complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in articles headlined “Doctors prescribe drugs to tackle Britain’s gambling epidemic”, “Violence, debt and devastation brought by the spin of a wheel”, and “Betting Burden”, published on 17 February 2016.

2. The front-page article reported that gambling had become such a problem in Britain that the NHS had started prescribing “£10,000-a-year drugs for some of the worst addicts”. It said that there were more than half a million “problem gamblers” in Britain, and calls to Britain’s leading helpline had increased by more than a third in the last year.

3. The second piece was a double-page spread comprising four articles about gambling. The first story reported that fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) had “spread like cancer”, with users able to place bets of up to £100 every 20 seconds. It said that last year, more than 30,000 users had been banned from betting shops because their gambling was out of control, and there had been an “epidemic of violence in shops”. A second article said that organised criminal gangs were using FOBTs to launder money, while a third piece said that experts feared a rise in gambling addiction because of the “huge increase” in advertising.  The fourth article said that the Responsible Gambling Trust, Britain’s leading charity to minimise gambling addiction, which is funded by bookmakers, had been accused of taking a “sympathetic approach to the industry”. It said that the trust had commissioned and published a report, which had suggested that FOBTs were not “themselves a problem”.

4. The third item under complaint was a comment piece in which the newspaper expressed its view that governments were failing to address the problem of gambling with “sufficiently robust regulation”. It said that Britain had 560,000 problem gamblers, of whom as many as 150,000 may be FOBT addicts, and it repeated that the NHS had started prescribing drugs to gambling addicts at a cost of £10,000 a year.

5. The articles were also published online.

6. The complainant said that the newspaper had misleadingly suggested that Naltrexone was being generally prescribed to problem gamblers by the NHS; it had not made clear that this was only part of a pilot scheme. It said that the newspaper had also inaccurately reported – three times in its coverage – that the drug cost the NHS £10,000 to prescribe. It noted that the newspaper had published a correction to address this inaccuracy, but it had appeared in the Corrections and Clarifications box on page 28, which it said was not sufficiently prominent.

7. The complainant said that the newspaper had inaccurately stated that there was a “gambling epidemic” that was “growing unchecked in bookmaker’s shops and online”. It considered that the newspaper should have given proper consideration to the results of the Health Survey 2012, which it had provided in advance of publication. That survey had found that “overall, problem gambling rates in Britain appear to be relatively stable”.

8. The complainant also disputed that crime and violence had followed the spread of FOBTs as they were used to launder money. It said that the number of suspicious activity reports, submitted by bookmakers to the National Crime Agency, was low when taking into account the high number of FOBT transactions. It also noted that Treasury statistics had “repeatedly” found that betting shops were low risk in relation to money laundering, and that Metropolitan Police statistics for 2013 has shown that there were 1,718 notifiable offences linked to betting shops, compared with 25,267 for food and convenience stores, meaning that betting shops suffered much lower crime levels than other high street retailers.

9. The complainant also disputed the report that gamblers had vandalised one in five FOBTs last year. It noted that following the coverage, the Gambling Commission had written an open letter to the newspaper stating that the Commission “does not collect data on the numbers of gaming machines that are subject to criminal damage”. It assumed that the published quotation related to data received from one operator, and the figure was 0.4% of FOBTs damaged each week, not one in five. The complainant did not accept that the 0.4% figure was accurate.

10. The complainant expressed concern that although it was approached for comment before publication, it had been given less than 24 hours to respond. It said that it had not been informed of the extent of the coverage, or that an article would appear as the lead on the front page. It also considered that although the newspaper had published its letter setting out its position on the claim that there was a “gambling epidemic”, it had not given it fair opportunity to reply to the significant inaccuracies that it had published in the first instance.

11. With regards to Naltrexone, the newspaper said that the NHS had started medicating problem gamblers as part of a pilot scheme, administered by the National Problem Gambling Clinic. At no point had the articles suggested that the drug was being prescribed more widely. It accepted, however, that an error had been made in relation to the cost of the drug, but it did not consider that this had been the result of a failure to take care.

12. The newspaper said that the use of Naltrexone to treat problem gamblers had first been mentioned during its conversation with the National Problem Gambling Clinic. The Clinic had said that Naltrexone had been used previously to treat alcoholics, but it had not made clear that in treating gambling addiction, the drug was being administered in a different way – in tablet form. The newspaper had relied on a research paper, published by Oregon State University, which had said that the drug in injection form cost $1,100 a month (about £800 a month). The tablets, however, cost £68 for a three-month course.

13. The newspaper said that the error had immediately been corrected online, and the following correction was printed in the Corrections box on page 28:

We reported (Feb 17) that a course of treatment with Naltrexone, being prescribed by the National Problem Gambling Clinic in London to help problem gamblers, costs about £800 a month. This is the cost of extended release Naltrexone, which is injected once a month. The clinic, however, is prescribing smaller doses of Naltrexone daily in tablet form; this costs £68 for a three-month course. We apologise for the confusion.

14. The newspaper said that the word “epidemic” had been comment based on a combination of reputable anecdotal and statistical data. It said figures published by the Gambling Commission had shown that the size of the gambling industry had grown by at least 22.5 per cent between 2010 and 2015. It noted that until 2014, a large proportion of the gambling industry had operated offshore and did not submit figures to the Gambling Commission. However, it applied the trend growth rate for onshore online gambling to the figures from November 2014 for offshore gambling, and it said it was reasonable to infer that the industry had grown by 30 per cent since 2010, which had been stated conservatively as 25 per cent in the report.

15. The newspaper said that GamCare, a charity offering help to problem gamblers, had said that it expected the number of problem gamblers in the UK to grow in proportion to the size of the gambling industry. The newspaper said it had used the results of the latest Gambling Prevalence Survey, which was carried out in 2010, and had increased the figures in proportion to the size of the industry (25 per cent), giving an estimate of 562,000 problem gamblers. It had not referred to the findings of the 2012 Health Survey because the Gambling Commission had warned that comparisons between it and the Gambling Prevalence Survey “should be made with caution”.

16. It said the author of the articles had interviewed numerous independent experts from the medical profession, academia and charities who had all said that problem gambling was growing sharply. He also noted that the number of people approaching GamCare for support had increased considerably over the past five years.

17. The newspaper noted that it had reported the complainant’s position that it was unaware of any evidence of an increase in problem gambling. It said that the day after the report was published, it had also published a letter from the complainant setting out its position that the 2012 Health Survey had found that levels of problem gambling had remained relatively constant for the past 13 years.

18. The newspaper said that the complainant had not disputed that bookmakers had filed more than 600 suspicious activity reports to the National Crime Agency. The article had included the complainant’s comment that “to suggest that eight million betting shop customers should be forced to join some ID card scheme because of just 633 suspicious activity reports a year is insane”.

19. With regards to money laundering, the newspaper noted that FOTBs are fitted with money laundering alert software in recognition that it is an issue, and said that, in relation to money laundering, a recent Gambling Commission report had found that the betting sector was “high risk relative to other gambling sectors”. As mentioned in the article, it said that police in Liverpool were investigating an alleged plot to launder £120,000 through betting machines, and it noted that West Yorkshire Police were investigating a suspected drug dealer who had been in possession of more than 400 FOBT receipts recording in excess of £36,000. The Gambling Commission had also recently fined one leading bookmaker for its failure to prevent customers laundering money, amongst other things.

20. The newspaper said that “one in every five” FOBTs being vandalised by gamblers every year had not been presented as an official Gambling Commission statistic. It had been accurately and clearly attributed to a “senior source” at the Commission, and had been coupled with the complainant’s position that it “was unaware of any statistical or other reliable evidence” to support the claim. It noted that the 0.4% statistic referred to by the complainant, indicated that 20% (or one in five) of that operator’s FOBTs were vandalised every year, which supported the article’s assertion regarding the industry as a whole.

21. It said that Metropolitan Police figures, obtained by The Sun on Sunday, had also shown that there were 613 cases of violence and assault linked to bookmakers last year, up by more than 100 in 12 months. West Midlands Police also reported 354 incidents in 2014, up from 307 in 2012. In addition, figures from the Gambling Commission showed that there had been 11,232 violent incidents in 8,980 betting shops from January to December 2014. The newspaper noted that a member of Ladbrokes staff had been murdered while working alone in the shop, and a woman had been the victim of a serious sexual assault at another branch. It noted that it had included the complainant’s statement in the article that its members adhere to the Safe Bet Alliance and operate under rules endorsed by the police. It considered that the need for these safeguards was driven by the potential for crime and violence associated with the gambling industry.

22. The complainant said that the Gambling Commission figures had not reported on “violent incidents”; the figures had referred to the number of incidents “requiring police assistance in betting shops and other gambling venues”.

Relevant Code provisions

23. Clause 1 (Accuracy)

i. The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.

ii. A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.

iii. A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.

iv. The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

v. A publication must report fairly and accurately the outcome of an action for defamation to which it has been a party, unless an agreed settlement states otherwise, or an agreed statement is published.

Findings of the Committee

24. It was accepted that the newspaper had inaccurately stated that Naltrexone was being prescribed to gambling addicts at a cost to the NHS of £10,000 a year. The inaccurate price was stated in the first line of the front-page article, was repeated on page two, and it was a fact relied upon in a leader discussing the “burden” that gambling presented to the UK.

25. The newspaper had obtained the price of the drug in injection form from a university research paper published in the US, but it had failed to check the form that the drug was being prescribed in the UK, and it had therefore incorrectly reported its cost. This represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the coverage in breach of Clause 1 (i). The inaccuracy had given a significantly misleading impression of the cost of gambling addiction on the NHS. A correction was therefore required in order to avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii).

26. The day after the inaccuracy was published, and immediately after it was notified, the newspaper published a correction in its Corrections and Clarifications box, which made clear that Naltrexone was prescribed to NHS patients in tablet form at a cost of £68 for a three-month course, and not £800 a month for intravenous drugs, as reported. The correction had also included an apology. With the exception of the leader article, which due to an oversight was amended during IPSO’s investigation, the newspaper also immediately amended the relevant online articles and appended corrective footnotes to them. The Committee considered that the newspaper’s prompt action to address the inaccuracy was sufficient to meet the requirement of Clause 1 (ii). While the Committee noted the complainant’s concern regarding the prominence of the print correction, the newspaper’s Corrections and Clarifications box, which always appears on its letters page, is a well-established and recognised location for the publication’s corrections. In this instance, the publication of the print correction in the Corrections and Clarifications box on the letters page was sufficiently prominent. There was no further breach of the Code on this point.

27. The Committee did not consider that the newspaper had given the misleading impression that Naltrexone was being prescribed by the NHS generally. It had accurately stated that “the NHS has started prescribing…drugs for some of the worst addicts”. This had not implied that the drug was widely available. There was no breach of the Code on this point.

28. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern that the newspaper had stated that there was a “gambling epidemic” when the Health Survey 2012 had found that problem gambling was “relatively stable”. However, the complainant did not appear to dispute that the gambling industry had grown by 25%, or that the charity GamCare had said that it expected problem gambling to increase at the same rate. Indeed, in its 2014/15 annual review, GamCare had stated that there had been a 29% increase in the number of calls it had taken from problem gamblers, which it said “demonstrates the increasing demand on our services”.

29. The article itself had also made clear that the current number of problem gamblers was conjecture based on the results of the last Gambling Prevalence Survey, which had been carried out in 2010. The newspaper had been entitled to rely on this survey, and to publish its opinion that the increase in both the size of the industry and problem gambling was significant and represented an “epidemic”; this characterisation was not misleading. The Committee also noted that the newspaper had reported the complainant’s position that it “was unaware of any evidence that problem gambling had increased”. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article on this point.

30. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that betting shops were “low risk” for money laundering, and that there were relatively few cases of it when compared to the high number of FOBT transactions. However, it was accepted that there had been hundreds of “suspected laundering” reports made to the Gambling Commission or National Crime Agency in the last year. In addition, a Gambling Commission report had found that the betting sector was “high risk relative to other gambling sectors”. The article had included the complainant’s position that 600 was a low number in comparison to the “eight million betting shop customers”. The newspaper had not given a significantly misleading impression of the prevalence of money laundering in betting shops. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article on this point.

31. The complainant also disputed that crime and violence had followed the spread of FOBTs. However, Metropolitan Police figures had shown that the number of cases of violence and assault linked to bookmakers had reached a record high in 2015. This assertion was also supported by figures from the Gambling Commission, which had shown that there had been 1.25 incidents per premises requiring police attendance in betting shops in 2014, which was up from 0.82 incidents per premises the previous year. The newspaper had not given a misleading impression of the extent to which levels of crime had increased in betting shops. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article on this point.

32. Finally, the Committee considered the complainant’s position that there was no evidence to suggest that gamblers had vandalised one in five FOBTs. However, this assertion had been attributed to one source at the Gambling Commission, and was supported by the example, provided by the complainant, that one betting shop operator had reported that 0.4% of its FOBTs were vandalised each week. The article had also included the complainant’s position that there was no evidence to support the claim that there was an “epidemic of violence against FOBTs”. The Committee did not consider that the newspaper had given a significantly misleading impression of the number of FOBTs that are vandalised; there was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article on this point.

33. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern that a fair opportunity to respond to the coverage had not been given. However, the newspaper had published a correction in response to the complaint about the reported price of Naltrexone, which was a suitable response to a concern about a general point of fact. In addition, it had published a letter from the complainant setting out its position that there was not a “gambling epidemic”.  There was no breach of Clause 1 (iii).  

Conclusions

34. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial action required

35. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required.

36. The newspaper had promptly published a correction in print, and it had amended the online articles and appended corrective notes. The corrections had identified the inaccuracy and made the correct position clear. The print correction had appeared in the newspaper’s established Corrections and Clarifications box, which gave sufficient prominence to the correction.

37. No further action was required.

Date complaint received: 05/05/2016
Date decision issued: 01/08/2016