Decision of the Complaints Committee – 03315-21 Ruayrungruang v The Daily Telegraph
Summary of Complaint
1. Dr Chanchai and Ms Please Ruayrungruang complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Daily Telegraph breached Clause 12 (Discrimination) in an article headlined “Billionaire Wentworth owner accepts furlough money for staff”, published 13 January 2021.
2. The article appeared online in substantially the same format under the headline “Wentworth's Chinese billionaire owner receives hundreds of thousands of pounds in furlough cash”.
3. The article reported that the “Chinese billionaire owner of Wentworth golf course has received hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money to furlough staff”. The article contained a quote from a third party, who remarked that: “’a billionaire claiming money from the state to pay his workers’ wages seems to go against the spirit if not the letter of what the furlough scheme was set out for’”. The article reported on the recent history of the golf course, including the fact that “Dr Chanchai Ruayrungruang…bought Wentworth for £135 million…in 2014 [and] installed his daughter as interim chief executive two years ago”. It also reported on the background of the Dr Ruayrungruang, noting that he “grew up in Thailand, made his fortune as the distributor of the energy drink Red Bull in China but has since expanded his Reignwood group into hotels and golf courses”. Further, it stated that “His takeover of Wentworth has not been without controversy. Reignwood caused a rebellion among its golfers when it [required] existing members to rejoin the club for a one-off debenture payment of £100,000 [a named] former chat show host and a club member, accused the Chinese owners in 2016 of ignoring tradition to create a club for the ‘super rich’ with a ‘car park full of Lamborghinis’”.
4. The complainants said the article breached Clause 12 as it contained several references to complainants’ race, such as the statement that Dr Ruayrungruang was a “Chinese billionaire” and that the club had “Chinese owners”. The complainants said that such references were unnecessary, had xenophobic and racist undertones, and could provoke anti-Chinese sentiment. Further, they said that the article under complaint must be viewed in context; numerous articles over the past 6 years had referenced the complainants’ race in a gratuitous, xenophobic and unnecessary fashion.
5. The publication did not accept that the article breached the Code. It denied that the articles had referred to the complainants’ “race”; it considered that instead they referred to the complainants’ nationality in a way that was not pejorative or prejudicial. Further, it contended that these references were genuinely relevant to the story. Wentworth was a quintessentially English sporting venue and club. It had always been owned by UK-based individuals. The publication argued that it was a common journalistic convention to note the nationality of new foreign owners when such businesses changed hands. Foreign ownership, it said, might have an impact of the culture or direction of a business, or may give rise to concerns about foreign influence on British institutions, economies and livelihoods. Finally, it noted that the complainants and their club highlighted their links to China: the Chinese flag was flown outside the club, and its website noted that the complainants were Chinese.
6. The complainant responded that race was not a biological concept, limited to physical traits. Rather, race was constructed by society upon both physical and social lines of distinction. It would therefore be overly reductionist to accept the newspaper’s definition of race and thus exclude being Chinese from the protections afforded by Clause 12.
Relevant Code Provisions
Clause 12 (Discrimination)
i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's, race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.
ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.
Findings of the Committee
7. The Committee first noted the dispute as to whether being “Chinese” could constitute a reference to an individual’s race within the meaning of Clause 12. Race is an ambiguous and contested concept with no straightforward definition. The Committee accepted that in principle being “Chinese” could constitute a reference to race in some circumstances. The Committee considered the complaint on the basis that Clause 12 was potentially engaged.
8. The Committee first examined whether the references to the complainants’ race were, as suggested by the complainants, prejudicial or pejorative. The article formed part of ongoing reporting about changes at the club since it had acquired new owners. The article had simply noted that the owners were “Chinese” and that Dr Chanchai Ruayrungruang “made his fortune” in China. These were biographical and factual statements of the complainants’ backgrounds and the ownership of the company; they carried no inherently pejorative connotations. Furthermore, the Committee did not agree that the cumulative effect of multiple references over a period of coverage to the complainants’ race imbued the word “Chinese” with a prejudicial or pejorative meaning, even where the coverage contained criticism of how the complainants managed their ownership of the club. Critical coverage did not necessarily equate to prejudicial coverage. There was no breach of Clause 12(i).
9. The Committee then turned to whether the references were “genuinely relevant” to the story. The fact that the complainants were Chinese was noted on the club’s website and a Chinese flag was flown outside Wentworth. Additionally, large part of the report was devoted to noting the recent history of Wentworth and the background of its billionaire owner, who the article said had grown “up in Thailand, made his fortune as the distributor of the energy drink Red Bull in China [and] since expanded…into hotels and golf courses”. Dr Ruayrungruang’s acquisition of the club in 2014, his background, and the “controversy” caused by recent changes, were important elements of this recent history. While the complainants considered that their nationality or race was irrelevant to business decisions taken about the running of the club, as the new owners, the complainants’ personal histories and backgrounds provided important context to the decisions they had taken. It also provided context which had led to tensions with some members of the club, who had accused the foreign owners of disregarding the traditions of a quintessentially English institution. In these circumstances, the references to the complainants being “Chinese” were genuinely relevant to the story. There was no breach of Clause 12(ii).
10. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 13/4/2021
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 02/09/2021Back to ruling listing