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October 14, 2022updated 17 Nov 2022 2:24pm

Rugby star Gareth Thomas on media portrayal of HIV and tabloid blackmail allegations

By Dominic Ponsford

In 2019 widespread reports claimed that a tabloid newspaper was involved in blackmailing former Wales Rugby star Gareth Thomas forcing him to reveal his HIV status.

The Sun was widely believed to be the title involved in what was seen by many as the worst example of tabloid excess since the widespread phone-hacking that went on in the 2000s. Now Press Gazette can reveal The Sun’s version of events for the first time as we spoke to Thomas about his campaigning work to raise awareness about HIV.

Press Gazette put it to Gareth Thomas that insiders at The Sun would disagree they they were involved in blackmail. They argue they were reporting at the time on an ongoing police investigation, and wished to seek a comment on the allegations made against him.

Thomas spoke to Press Gazette as he launches Tackle HIV, a national campaign and bus tour funded by the Terrence Higgins Trust and ViiV Healthcare to counter misconceptions about the virus.

Asked what he thinks about the way HIV is covered in the media, Thomas said: “HIV is not a death sentence. It’s not what it was perceived to be, especially in the 1980s when it was seen as a gay plague. Those myths and misconceptions continue.”

He noted that in 2020 the majority of new HIV infections in the UK were women rather than gay and bisexual men.

He said: “HIV and AIDS are not the same thing. I take one tablet a day which stops HIV progressing to AIDS and I can live a healthy life. Modern medicine suppresses the HIV in my body which means the HIV becomes undetectable and untransmissible through sexual contact.”

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Asked about the encounters with the tabloid press which he says prompted him to make the documentary “HIV and Me” with the BBC in 2019 revealing his HIV status publicly for the first time, he said: “I don’t tar the tabloids with the actions of a very few journalists.

“What disappointed me, and why I decided to make the documentary, was the journalist revealed to my parents about my HIV diagnosis before I had felt the strength or the need to tell them myself. I wouldn’t say one journalist doing that was a reflection of journalism.

“When somebody does something like that we as a family decided we had to do something to take control, because we felt what this individual journalist was trying to do was not trying to write a story that would dictate what living with HIV was like at that time and how far science and medicine had come, they wanted to write a story that was more based around personal, private information, more a sleaze story.”

Press Gazette has seen a transcript of an encounter between Gareth Thomas and a Sun journalist outside his parents’ Welsh home in November 2016.
Thomas was in a car with his father when the reporter approached them.

On that occasion the reporter was pursuing the story which has now been aired in a civil case at the High Court. The allegations from his former partner Ian Baum are that Thomas hid his condition from him and passed the virus on to him by “failing to take reasonable care”.

The NHS and numerous other health authorities say HIV positive individuals who are on effective treatment and so have an undetectable level of the virus cannot pass it on to others.

In documents submitted to the High Court, Thomas’s legal team said their client had incorrectly believed he could not transmit HIV “whilst his CD4 count was not at a dangerous level requiring medication”.

Press Gazette understands that the reporter concerned believed Thomas’s father was aware of his son’s condition when he approached the pair and asked Thomas to comment on the allegations made by Baum and on the police investigation. In the transcript of the encounter seen by Press Gazette, the reporter made no attempt to ask Thomas’s father about his son’s medical condition, although he would have overheard him question his son about the Baum allegations.

In May 2017, The Sun published an anonymised story about a sportsman who was being investigated by police over claims he knowingly infected a man with HIV.

And in February 2018 The Sun published a story saying that an unnamed sportsperson had been questioned by police over the same allegation.

Gareth Thomas: HIV and Me was aired by the BBC in September 2019.

Press Gazette put it to Thomas that insiders at The Sun would disagree with the allegation that they were involved in blackmail.

Thomas said: “The only things I know was what I read in the stories they printed whilst I was making the documentary and the incident of the journalist going to my house and asking them to make a comment on my HIV status, that’s my only knowledge of what The Sun were trying to do at the time.”

Tackle HIV, a campaign led by Gareth Thomas in partnership with ViiV Healthcare and the Terrence Higgins Trust, aims to tackle the stigma and misunderstanding around HIV. Visit and follow @tacklehiv

Picture: Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images

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