Ruling

19361-23 Longthorpe v Mail Online

    • Date complaint received

      9th November 2023

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 10 Clandestine devices and subterfuge, 12 Discrimination, 2 Privacy, 3 Harassment

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 19361-23 Longthorpe v Mail Online


Summary of Complaint

1. Sian Longthorpe complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 3 (Harassment), Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in the following articles:

• “EXCLUSIVE Revealed: Transgender athlete who 'smashed to smithereens' women's Parkrun record by a minute and 13 seconds was married man until four years ago - as row rages over national event's self-ID gender rules"”, published on 24 May 2023.

• “EXCLUSIVE 'I've been robbed': Female runner, 51, who lost her Parkrun record to transgender woman feels 'cheated' and says it's 'unfair' that her time was beaten by athlete who was born a man”, published on 25 May 2023.

• “Olympic legend Daley Thompson warns that girls will be driven out of sport by the inclusion of trans women - as champion joins Sharron Davies and JK Rowling in Fair Play for Women campaign”, published on 30 May 2023.

2. The sub-heading of the first article reported that “[the complainant], 43, completed the Porthcawl Parkrun in record a 18m 53s”. It reported that the complainant – “who was living as a married man until just over four years ago” and was a “keen amateur runner from [a named county in England]” – had completed the Porthcawl Parkrun “a full one minute and 13 seconds ahead of her closest rival”. The article then stated that “the outcome of that race in West Wales” came to national attention when the result was referenced by a former British Olympian as “an example of what she believes is the exclusion of women athletes and their achievements in the name of being 'inclusive'”. It reported that the former Olympian had posted on social media “that a Parkrun female record was 'smashed to smithereens by a trans-identifying male'”.

3. The first article went on to report that the complainant “came out as transgender in 2019”; was “one of the UK most high-profile trans runners”; and was a “'frontrunner' or brand ambassador” for a high-profile sportwear brand. It also reported that, in an “interview to the magazine Women's Running in March 2021”, the complainant had spoken of her “journey to changing gender” and described “how she had always had feelings about her identity but had tried to bury them by getting married and having children – before the marriage broke up and she was forced to confront her 'true feelings'”. It reported that she said: “I've now been Siân for about 18 months and it's been amazing. It's not without its difficulties, but generally it's been just so much better than I feared, and for that I'm just so grateful.”

4. The first article stated that Parkrun was a “5km race” held “every Saturday for all abilities”, and which allowed “runners to self-identify their gender as 'male', 'female', 'non-binary' or 'prefer not to say'”. The article concluded by stating that a Parkrun spokesperson said, “the fun run was not a race or athletic competition overseen by national or international federations and believed that it would not be 'appropriate or practical' to request proof of gender or 'adjudicate the validity of a person's gender identity'.”

5. The first article was accompanied by a series of photographs of the complainant. Two of the photographs showed her prior to and following transition.

6. The second article reported comments by the woman who had “lost her Parkrun record” to the complainant. It reported the complainant had “smashed” the woman’s record, “in the female 40 to 45 age group category”, in a time of “18 minutes and 53 seconds”. It reported that the named woman said she felt “robbed” of her record, adding: “if my record had been beaten by a natural born female runner, I would have accepted that as fair and square”. It also reported the comments made by the former British Olympian on social media that “a Parkrun female record was 'smashed to smithereens by a trans-identifying male'”. The article was accompanied by a rankings table, titled “Top five women Parkrun athletes in Porthcawl”, which placed the complainant in first place (18.53) and the other woman in second (20.06).

7. The second article also reported that the complainant “came out publicly as transgender in 2019”; was “now one of the UK most high-profile trans runners”; and was a “brand ambassador” for a high-profile sports brand. It also reported comments she had made to the “magazine Women's Running in March 2021” about her “journey to changing gender”. It stated that the Parkrun was a “5km race”, which allowed “runners to self-identify their gender as 'male', 'female', 'non-binary' or 'prefer not to say”, and included the response from a Parkrun spokesperson who said “the fun run was not a race athletic competition overseen by national or international federations” and it would not be “appropriate or practical” for the organisation to request proof of gender from participants.

8. The second article was also accompanied by a series of photographs of the complainant, including a photograph showing her prior to and following transition captioned “Trans runner Ms Longthorpe was living as a married man until just over four years ago”.

9. The third article reported the concerns raised by a former Olympian athlete regarding the inclusion of transgender athletes within female categories. It reported that the complainant “was also last week revealed as the trans athlete who 'smashed to smithereens' a women's Parkrun record”. It stated that the complainant – who, was according to the article, aged “43” and “living as a married man until just over four years ago” – completed the previous weekend's Porthcawl Parkrun in “a record 18 minutes and 53 seconds on Saturday – a full one minute and 13 seconds ahead of her closest rival”.

10. The third article was accompanied by a photograph of the complainant, captioned “Siân Longthorpe, 43, completed last weekend's Porthcawl Parkrun in a record 18 minutes and 53 seconds on Saturday”.

11. Following the publication of the first article, on 25 May 2023, a reporter acting on behalf of the publication attended the complainant’s home. The complainant said that the approach and conduct of this journalist breached Clause 3 of the Editors’ Code. She said that the journalist had introduced themselves and the publication which they represented. In response, she told the journalist “this isn’t fair” and closed the front door. She then said that the journalist continued to “shout questions” at her from outside of the door. She considered that her decision to close the door was a clear signal that she wished for the journalist to desist in their questioning, and said that – by ignoring this request – there was a breach of Clause 3.

12. The complainant also said that the publication of the articles constituted harassment in breach of Clause 3. Further, the complainant said that she had been unaware that the journalist’s approach had been recorded, and that she had not consented to this. She said, therefore, the recording had been obtained by subterfuge and clandestine means in breach of Clause 10.

13. The complainant also said that the articles were prejudicial to her gender identity as a trans woman, in breach of Clause 12.

14. The complainant also considered that the articles amounted to an unjustified intrusion into her private life, in breach of Clause 2. She said that the article had identified her as a trans woman, as well as the area where she lived. She also said that the newspaper had published photographs of her without her consent or permission.

15. Further, the complainant said that the articles were inaccurate and misleading, in breach of Clause 1. She denied that she had “smashed to smithereens” the women’s record at the Parkrun. Her “record 18 minutes and 53 seconds” was in the female age category 45 to 49 years rather than for all females – the record for all females was 16:40; 2 minutes less than her best time. She also disputed that the “Parkrun” could be classified as a “race” and said that the article misreported her age: she was 45 not 43.

16. In addition, the complainant said that the inclusion of comments she had previously provided to another publication misleadingly suggested that she had spoken with the newspaper. She also expressed concerns that she had not been approached for comment by the newspaper prior to the publication of the first article.

17. The complainant also said that the second article was inaccurate to report that a named woman felt “robbed” of her record. She denied that this individual had provided the publication with the comments attributed to them; and stated that these comments been taken out of context.

18. The publication did not accept a breach of the Editors’ Code, and denied that the conduct of its reporter represented a breach of Clause 3. It said it was important to give the complainant the right to personally contribute to the debate on her record-breaking participation in the Parkrun event and the wider issue of inclusion in women’s sport. It said that its reporter had attempted to contact the complainant at her home on 24 May, but found nobody home, and therefore returned the following day to provide her the opportunity to comment on the story. It provided IPSO with a copy of the recording made by the journalist during his second approach to the complainant’s home.

Reporter: Hi Sian? My name is […], I work for Mail Online. I wanted to come and speak to you about …

Complainant: Oh okay

Reporter: I wanted to come and speak to you about …

Complainant: No.

Reporter: Do you think it’s fair…

Complainant: No, sorry, no.

Reporter: Listen…

[Creak as the complainant’s front door begins to close]

Reporter: There's a lot of people who aren't … Sian, there's a lot of controversy because people aren't happy. They say it's unfair for you to compete in the women's events. Do you have anything to say?

19. The publication said that the recording demonstrated that the conduct of its reporter did not constitute harassment, intimidation, or persistent pursuit. The publication noted that the reporter had introduced himself and explained the purpose of his visit, and that the complainant did not explicitly say that she wished the journalist to desist from contacting or questioning her. Instead, the reporter had introduced himself and began asking a question as the complainant closed her door, continuing for a brief time – and no more than a few seconds – after it had closed. It also said that the recording showed the reporter had spoken courteously and at a reasonable volume, and had not shouted as alleged by the complainant. It added that, when the front door shut and the complainant did not respond, the reporter had left the property and did not return or attempt to contact the complainant again.

20. The publication also denied a breach of Clause 10. The publication said that it was common practice for journalists to record their interviews: recordings were more reliable than contemporaneous shorthand notes and arguably indisputable.

21. Further, the publication did not accept a breach of Clause 12. It said that the articles did not contain any prejudicial or pejorative references to the complainant’s gender identity. It also said that the complainant’s gender identity was genuinely relevant to the articles, noting the criticism that the complainant’s “record” breaking Parkrun had received within the context of active discussions about whether trans athletes should be allowed to compete in their self-assigned gender.

22. With regard to Clause 2, the publication did not accept that the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy over the fact of her transition, or her appearance pre-transition: the complainant was a trans ambassador for a high-profile sportwear brand; and she frequently posted about her transition – including with similar “before and after” images – on her open social media profile. Further, it did not accept that the article included sufficient information to identity the complainant’s home or reveal its exact location; the articles only reported the county in which the complainant lived.

23. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 1. It said that it was not in dispute that the complainant had completed the Porthcawl Parkrun in a record time, and provided a copy of the ‘record’ to IPSO. While it did not accept a breach of the Code, upon receipt of a separate complaint from IPSO, the publication amended the first and third article to make clear that the complainant broke the record finishing time for her gender age group, and not the overall women’s category. On 17 July, it published the following wording as a footnote clarification to the two articles:

“An earlier version of this article reported that Sian Longthorpe broke the record for the women’s category at Porthcawl Parkrun. Ms Longthorpe in fact broke the record specifically for the women’s 45-49 age group category at Porthcawl Parkrun. We have amended the article to make this clear.”

24. Further, the publication said that it removed, upon receipt of the complaint from IPSO, the box titled “Top five women Parkrun athletes in Porthcawl” from the second article, which it accepted wrongly suggested that the complainant was the top overall women’s record holder for the Porthcawl Parkrun.

25. While the publication accepted that it had, due to human error, incorrectly reported the complainant’s age, it did not consider that this amounted to a significant inaccuracy. It noted that this information had been removed from the first article on 14 June 2023 and from the second article on 21 July 2023.

26. The publication denied that it was misleading to describe the Parkrun as a “race”: the events were timed and placed; course records are kept and published; and clearly some participants compete against others. The publication also said that the complainant’s comments to a separate publication in 2021 included within the articles were clearly attributed and presented as such; there was no suggestion that these quotes were obtained via an interview with the publication itself.

27. In relation to the complainant’s concerns about the second article’s coverage of the comments of the named woman, who felt “robbed” of her record by the complainant’s achievement, the publication provided a copy of the reporter’s shorthand notes from the telephone interview to demonstrate her comments had been accurately reported.

Relevant Clause Provisions

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.

Clause 2 (Privacy)*

i) Everyone is entitled to respect for their private and family life, home, physical and mental health, and correspondence, including digital communications.

ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual's private life without consent. In considering an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy, account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information and the extent to which the material complained about is already in the public domain or will become so.

iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Clause 3 (Harassment)*

i) Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.

ii) They must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.

iii) Editors must ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care not to use non-compliant material from other sources.

Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge)*

i) The press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices; or by intercepting private or mobile telephone calls, messages or emails; or by the unauthorised removal of documents or photographs; or by accessing digitally-held information without consent.

ii) Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, including by agents or intermediaries, can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means.

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

28. The Committee first considered the concerns raised under Clause 3. The Committee acknowledged that the complainant had found the reporter’s visit to her home intrusive. However, reporters are entitled to approach individuals for comment at their homes as long as they do so in accordance with the requirements of the Code; indeed, making such approaches is a routine part of the newsgathering process.

29. In reaching a decision as to whether Clause 3 had been breached, the Committee had regard for the audio recording of the encounter between the complainant and the reporter. The reporter had identified himself and the publication he worked for, and made clear why he was contacting the complainant. The complainant had then closed her front door while the journalist was speaking, and the reporter had then left the property once the door had been fully closed and the complainant had not replied to his questions. The reporter had not returned to the property or attempted to contact the complainant after this encounter. The Committee did not consider that the reporter had acted in a harassing or intimidating fashion; the reporter’s tone had been cordial. This did not constitute harassment or intimidation under the terms of Clause 3 and there was no breach.

30. The Committee also did not consider that the publication of the three articles constituted harassment of the complainant. Clause 3 generally relates to the way journalists behave when researching a news story, though the Committee acknowledged that, in certain circumstances, the publishing of material could represent a breach of Clause 3. However, in this case, the publication of the three articles under complaint did not reach this bar; this was insufficient to establish a pattern of behaviour on the part of the publication which could be said to be intrusive, intimidating, or harassing. There was no breach of Clause 3.

31. Further, the Committee did not consider that the recording of the encounter was acquired using a clandestine listening device. The interview with the complaint was conducted openly, and while the complainant had not been aware that the journalist had recorded their interaction, the reporter had made clear who they were and the reason why they wished to speak with the complainant. In this case, the use of the recording device was a means of effectively recording the complainant’s comments; it served, like notes, to verify the accuracy of their interaction. There was no misrepresentation or subterfuge, and no breach of Clause 10.

32. The Committee then considered the complainant’s concerns under Clause 12. The articles identified the complainant as a “trans woman” and reported details of her pre-transition life. This was clearly a reference to her gender identity and therefore Clause 12 was engaged.

33. The Committee then considered whether the references to her gender identity were prejudicial or pejorative. The Committee did not consider that any pejorative or prejudicial language was used; it was a factual description of the complainant’s gender. There was therefore no breach of Clause 12(i).

34. The Committee next considered whether the references to the complainant’s gender identity were genuinely relevant to the stories, as required by the terms of Clause 12 (ii). The articles reported on the complainant’s participation and achievement in the Porthcawl Parkrun, and the subsequent reaction. The Committee noted that the participation of transgender women in the female category of sports events was a subject of live public debate. In the view of the Committee, these details of her gender identity provided relevant context to the criticism she had received. The Committee therefore found that the details relating to the complainant’s gender identity were genuinely relevant to the story, and there was no breach of Clause 12(ii).

35. The Committee next considered the complainant’s concerns under Clause 2. The Committee noted that the complainant was a brand ambassador for a high-profile sportswear brand; had previously discussed her gender identity and transition with another publication and therefore a public audience; and had posted images showing herself pre- and post-transition on her open and publicly accessible social media page. The Committee also noted that the articles did not include sufficient information to identity her home address; instead, they reported the wider geographical region where she lived. In these circumstances, the Committee did not consider that the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy over the published information, and their publication did not represent an intrusion into her private life. There was no breach of Clause 2.

36. The Committee next considered whether the articles misreported or misrepresented the complainant’s Parkrun record. The Committee noted that, while the complainant disputed that any record had been “smashed to smithereens”, this was clearly presented as the characterisation of an Olympic athlete, who had posted this statement on social media. While the first and third articles reported that the complainant had broken the “women’s record” for the Porthcawl Parkrun, they did not qualify this to a specific age category, nor did they report that she held the overall women’s Parkrun record. In such circumstances, and where the complainant had set a new “record” for her age category at the Parkrun, the Committee did not consider that the first and third article’s coverage of the complainant’s “record” was inaccurate or misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. Nonetheless, the Committee welcomed the steps taken by the publication in updating the articles to qualify the complainant’s record.

37. The Committee noted that the second article included a ranking table titled, “Top five women Parkrun athletes in Porthcawl”, which incorrectly reported that the complainant was the top overall women’s record holder this Parkrun. However, in circumstances where the text of the second article clarified that the complainant’s “record” related to a specific age category, and where it focused on the other woman’s reaction to this result, the Committee did not consider that the table rendered the article significantly inaccurate or misleading, in breach of Clause 1.

38. Further, while the Committee recognised that Parkrun events were not formally considered “races”, it did not consider that the three articles were significantly inaccurate or misleading to describe the events as such, where distances were measured and individual times for those involved were recorded. The Committee also noted that the first and second articles included the comments of a Parkrun spokesperson which clarified the organisation’s position on this point.

39. In addition, the Committee did not consider that misreporting the complainant’s age represented a significant inaccuracy; this did not materially affect the accuracy of the article, which was about the Parkrun event and the complainant’s time, and where the difference between the complainant’s actual age and reported age was small. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

40. The Editors’ Code does not place a requirement for publications to seek comment from the subject of stories ahead of publication. However, a failure to seek comment, in certain circumstances, may represent a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article and render an article inaccurate or misleading. In this instance, the publication had attempted to contact the complainant prior to the publication of the first article and then again, the following day, on 25 May 2023 – an approach which the complainant considered harassing. Further, the Committee noted that the articles reported the complainant’s publicly available Porthcawl parkrun record as well as the remarks she had made to a separate publication a number of years prior, and which were clearly distinguished as such. On this basis, the Committee concluded that there was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in breach of Clause 1 (i) on these points.

41. The Committee noted that the complainant had raised further concerns over the accuracy of the comments by another individual. In circumstances where these points related specifically to this individual and their contact with the publication, the Committee considered that it would require the direct involvement of this individual – or their authorised representative – to be in a position to make a ruling on these points of complaint. The complainant had confirmed that she was neither acting on behalf nor with the consent of this other individual. In the absence of their involvement, the Committee could not consider these aspects of the complaint and therefore made no ruling on these points.

Conclusion

42. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

43. N/A


Date complaint received:  25/05/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO:  19/10/2023