Decision of the Complaints Committee – 04322-21 Ruayrungruang v The Sunday Telegraph
Summary of Complaint
1. Dr Chanchai and Ms Please Ruayrungruang complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Daily Telegraph breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) in two articles headlined “Cyber attackers target Wentworth members” and “Mass exodus at Wentworth over rise in annual fees to £20,000”, published 17 January and 4 April 2021 respectively.
2. The articles appeared online in substantially the same format under the headlines “Wentworth faces exodus of founding members after hiking annual fees by 50 per cent” and “Wentworth hacked and personal details of entire member list thought to be stolen”.
3. The first article reported that the “personal details of tycoons, sports stars and celebrities have been stolen in a cyber attack on England’s most exclusive golf club”, Wentworth. The article remarked that “The data hack will do little to ease tensions between members and Wentworth’s new owners. Wentworth was purchased six years ago for £135 million by Reignwood Group, a company owned by Dr Chanchai Ruayrungruang, a Chinese / Thai billionaire, who installed his daughter as interim chief executive of the club”.
4. The second article reported that “Wentworth golf club is facing an exodus of its “founding” members after its owners announced a 50 per cent rise in fees to £20,000 a year”. The article noted that “The furore over the increase in fees is the latest row to engulf the club since it was sold to the Reignwood Group in 2014 for £135 million. The Chinese-owned investment company is owned by Dr Chanchai Ruayrungruang, who made his fortune making and selling the Red Bull energy drink in his homeland”. It noted that the new owners “want members to move to a new scheme which requires them to pay £150,000 for a debenture and an annual fee on top. They…had hoped to sell 888 debentures. The number is considered particularly lucky in China”. The article reported comments by several individuals identified as long-time members commenting on alleged changes to the club’s atmosphere and membership under its new ownership. The sub-headline to the online article mentioned the “Chinese owners’ decision to raise fees”.
5. The complainants said the articles breached Clause 12 as they contained several references to complainants’ race: namely references to the complainants being “Chinese”; the club being run by a “Chinese owned company”; and, the statement that the club hoped to sell 888 debentures – a lucky number “in China”. The complainants said that such references were unnecessary, had xenophobic and racist undertones, and could provoke anti-Chinese sentiment. Further, they said that the articles 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.
6. The publication did not accept that the articles 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 in both instances. 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 the complainants’ Chinese heritage.
7. 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
8. 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.
9. The Committee first examined whether the alleged references to the complainants’ race were, as suggested by the complainants, prejudicial or pejorative. The articles formed part of ongoing reporting about changes at the club since it had acquired new owners. In that context, they had simply noted that the owners of the club were “Chinese” and that Dr Ruayrungruang was “a Chinese / Thai billionaire”. 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).
10. 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. The first article, which related primarily to a cyber attack on the club, simply noted that Dr Ruayrungruang was “a Chinese / Thai billionaire in the context of a discussion about the recent history of Wentworth. Dr Ruayrungruang’s acquisition of the club in 2014, his background, and the “tensions between members and [the] new owners”, were important elements of this recent history.
11. The second article focused on claims that longstanding members had left the club following changes implemented by its new owners. In this context, it made multiple references to the complainants’ being Chinese or the club being “Chinese-owned”. 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).
12. The second article had stated that the club had “had hoped to sell 888 debentures” and that “the number is considered particularly lucky in China”. This was a comment on the intentions of the club and the number of debentures they had chosen to sell. The Committee did not consider that it potentially constituted a reference to the complainants’ race. Clause 12 was not engaged on this point.
13. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 13/04/2021
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 02/09/2021Back to ruling listing