This article was first published in the October edition of World Online Gambling Law Report.
The recent launch of Green Bet, an on-line affiliate which intends to donate a substantial percentage of its profits to climate change projects has sparked controversy and press comment.
Green Bet, a newly launched website (www.greenbet.biz) is operated by a not-forprofit organisation, and effectively operates as an affiliate in the on-line casino and sports-book arena. For every player who signs up to gamble on-line, Green Bet will receive an affiliate fee expressed as a proportion of the lifetime revenue of that player from the ultimate operator. These funds are to be given either to climate change charities or specific projects in the field of renewable energy.
Whether or not Green Bet is ultimately successful in carving a niche for itself among the panoply of gambling incentives and marketing opportunities currently available remains to be seen, but it has certainly attracted press interest. And one can see the attraction of the model. After all, if gambling is nothing more than a paid for entertainment in which the house always ultimately wins at least players’ losses might as well benefit a good cause and allow those who gamble to express a preference for where a part of their losses will ultimately end up.
The reaction to the new site has been interesting. Initially Green Bet claimed to have won support for its project from organisations such as Greenpeace, WWF and Friends of the Earth. However, since the launch, it has been reported in The Guardian that Friends of the Earth has rejected the offer stating that “we don’t accept money from gambling companies”. The UK Green Party was also quoted in the Guardian in July that “Online gambling is not an appropriate activity for a political party to give endorsement”.
The reactions demonstrate very clearly the very ingrained negative attitudes which still surround the gambling industry. Clearly, the organisations quoted above either feel that gambling is of itself a malign influence or, more likely, that receiving money indirectly from the gambling industry will create negative reaction from the wider public and somehow pollute the overall purity of their environmental credentials. One might understand such a reaction if it had been made in response to a putative donation from an oil company (or even from the tobacco industry, which might be regarded as having generally negative social connotations based upon addiction and health issues). But gambling remains a pariah, even when the organisations from whom the funds will ultimately be derived are respectable UK plcs such as William Hill who could not be singled out as having any stake in the environmental debate. For the gambling operators, Green Bet is just another affiliate.
One recalls, of course, that gambling has even in the last few decades had a more colourful and uncomfortable public image. Indeed, the legislative regime created in the 1960s was testament to the perceived need to control unlicensed gambling and prevent what was seen as a threat of serious social instability and organised crime. But much had changed by the time that the Blair Government published the White Paper “A Safe Bet for Success” in 2004. That document made it clear that gambling was to be regarded as a normal form of adult entertainment and was, for the purposes of the legislation “morally neutral”. So it seems strange that feelings continue to run so high.
What is perhaps still more bizarre is that the use of gambling as a means of funding public interest projects and good causes could hardly have a longer pedigree. Lotteries have funded government building programmes from the Han dynasty sections of the Great Wall of China, to the British Museum. The Staatsloterij in the Netherlands has been in continuous operation since 1726 and our own National Lottery has contributed more than £24bn to good causes over the course of the last 16 years. So we arrive at a moral paradox in which companies feel that they have to distance themselves from donations that emanate from the gambling sector, because of a perceived public mistrust of gambling whilst at the same time many of them (including for example the World Wildlife Fund) themselves hold gambling operating licences to run large society lotteries. In many cases, charitable organisations are depriving themselves of the funding that they strive so hard to raise, by avoiding contact with an activity which is regularly undertaken by 70% of the adult British population.
How did we get into this pickle? The answer, we think, lies not in the normal excuses that gambling can lead to addiction, or is sometimes associated with criminal behaviour but in much deeper social and historical trends.
Moral objections to gambling as an activity stretch back many hundreds of years and are normally based upon the entanglement between religious practice or philosophy and gambling as a social activity. For one thing, there is a close link between the act of gambling and the act of “sortition”. Sortition is the process by which one detects the divine will through a deliberate appeal to random chance – allowing God to influence the way that the bones fall. We find examples of selection by lot in numerous places in both the old and new Testament. For example Jonah was selected by lot to be cast into the sea and ultimately eaten by the whale and, following the suicide of Judas, the disciples chose the new disciple, Matthias instead of Barsabus after praying and drawing lots. So gambling with cards and dice uses the paraphernalia of religious prediction for earthly and material ends. We see the juxtaposition of earthly and spiritual most starkly in the image from the gospel of John in which Roman soldiers at the foot of the cross gamble to win the clothes of Christ. A similar attitude to gambling can be found in the Qu’ran:
“O ye who believe! Intoxicants and games of chance and idols and divining arrows are only an infamy of Satan’s handiwork: eschew such things that you may prosper” (Qu’ran 5, 90-91)
Subsequent Christian teaching has emphasised the need for society to love one another and to work together for the common good. Again, gambling is directly opposed to these two basic precepts because (i) it sets people against each other as a winner and loser and (ii) by dividing existing riches rather than doing anything productive for the common good. These notions feature strongly in the Protestant work ethic, and the opposition to gambling of certain religious groups such as the Methodists.
Lotteries as a mechanism for raising money for government works became popular in the 16th and 17th century (as methods of obtaining voluntary tax contributions in a world where tax is difficult to assess and collect from the general public, they were probably unsurpassed). In the 19th century the lottery became a mechanism for polite society to gamble under the guise of philanthropism.
What conclusions may we draw about the deeply embedded public reactions? First is that there is an altogether irrational distinction between lotteries and other forms of gambling. Indeed, according to the Gambling Commission’s latest prevalence study, most people who play the National Lottery do not regard it as a form of gambling at all. The passivity of the lottery mechanism and its long association with the state and charitable giving, lends it a popular respectability that it deserves no more than any other form of gambling. Second, other forms of gambling seem to retain their “occult” status even in a very materialistic world. In short, there is still something “not quite right” about gambling in the public eye – and it is a stain of such heritage and permanence that political parties and charities often feel unable to go near those subjects for fear of public criticism. It is somewhat striking, for example, that the Green Party’s manifesto at the last election contained the twin policies of liberalising brothels and dismantling the National Lottery.
Where does this leave Green Bet? In a world where budget airlines offer passengers the chance to offset the carbon used on their flights by making a donation (somewhat akin to buying a blessing for the sole purpose of indulging in a sin), the snubs raised against Green Bet seem somewhat unjust and over sensitive. There seems to be no reason why forms of hard gambling could not ultimately erode the negative public perceptions and create a whole raft of gambling opportunities that would save whales, help the victims of floods and earthquakes or do other forms of good. But the evidence to date suggests that we have some way to go. Nevertheless, in a society which is gradually coming to terms with its secularism, perhaps the development of Green Bet at least signals that we are ready to come to terms with the paradox.