In October this year The Sun trained its sights on Gary Lineker, following a series of tweets where he questioned some people's reactions to the first children entering the UK from the Calais refugee camp.
In his tweets, Lineker branded some of the reaction as “racist and utterly heartless”, which The Sun used as reason to roll out its medieval techniques for manufacturing a scandal. It launched a personal attack on Lineker’s appearance, grabbed a couple of offensive tweets and quotes from obliging MPs, bandied around phrases such as “leftie-luvvie” and suggested that the BBC was under pressure to sack the MOTD presenter.
Pretty normal behaviour for one of our tabloids.
However, the whole episode demonstrated just how antiquated and out of touch this approach has become, and just how the influence of this once all-powerful tabloid has diminished. There was a time when this type of front-page splash could genuinely have put pressure on the BBC, but not anymore.
Most importantly, it demonstrated to me that The Sun had stopped listening to its audience and was making assumptions about their views, which could ultimately see it go out of business.
At the heart of this story lies two points: the pathological desire to put celebrities on a pedestal, only to knock them down again, and the post-Brexit bravado and boorishness that seems to pervade through all media channels from both sides of the Leave/Remain divide.
Through no fault of his own, nobody has been on more of a pedestal over the last 25 years than St Gary of Lineker, putting him firmly in the tabloid crosshairs, and this might have clouded The Sun’s Editor-in-Chief, Tony Gallagher’s, judgement.
I think The Sun felt they’d finally got their man because he dared to have an opinion on an emotive subject which was central to the Brexit debate and that appeared to be at odds with the ‘popular’ vote.
What they failed to realise was that, despite the current climate, immigration is just one issue among many. It wasn’t Gary’s alleged tarring of some people who voted Brexit with the ‘racist’ tag that was the insulting part of this episode, it was The Sun assuming their readership were a mindless mob, only concerned with immigration.
Brexit was a vote for change, over and above any one single issue, and it was a close run thing; which means that to assume any groundswell of support was naive. I do think that it emboldened The Sun and informed their thinking, it just proved to be too simplistic and wrong.
Dedicating an entire front page to attacking a man who was asking for compassion is never going to go in your favour.
And that is how it played out. Apart from a significant out-pouring of support for Gary across social media and the wider media landscape, came the viral campaign for him to receive a Sun-sponsored National Television Award. There have been numerous calls to boycott the paper and when Tony Gallagher was seen to respond to a tweet about refugees, it wasn’t long before #asktonygallagher started trending, and you can imagine the majority of the content.
What has dominated the headlines since the end of October is that Gary has come out on top and The Sun has largely scored an own goal.
And whilst this article is focused on The Sun, other tabloids ought to start looking a little more closely at their audiences and make sure that they really do understand what motivates them as the recent success by the Stop Funding Hate campaign has shown.
It used to be that our tabloid media claimed that to understand their audiences they created an archetypal ‘family’ of readers, with a mum, dad and kids, and if stories didn’t appeal to at least one of them, they didn’t make it in. It might be time to return to this model, because I’m not sure who this story was supposed to resonate with, but my guess would be that he’s middle-aged, lonely, angry and confused.