STINGS AIN’T WHAT THEY USED TO BE

Former Sun Newspaper Executive Steve Sampson on the Philip Schofield gay disclosure that was more soft focus than shocking

For those of you watching in black and white. Much-loved daytime telly star Phillip Schofield revealed in a “shock” statement last Friday that he is gay. He had been wrestling with his sexual identity for years apparently. Now he wanted to get it off his chest.

Who better to be with him live on TV reading out his carefully crafted statement than his longstanding presenting partner Holly Willoughby. Cue a steady stream of stars congratulating Phil on his honesty. Including his wife and kids who knew nothing until the last moment – statement or gayness. Apparently.

Holly Willoughby shows love for Phil after his revelation on their television show

And that’s where social media took the story in a totally different direction from mainstream media. Lurid comments – even beneath The Sun’s soft-focus “exclusive” with Phil – told a different story. Over the weekend other newspapers ran pieces saying it was common knowledge on the various shows fronted by him and Holly that he was gay. Social media went much further. Some referred to it as a seminal moment.

Confused? Sure, even more than Phil after digesting that lot.

Whatever the truth, Schofield had chosen well bringing in PR heavyweight Phil Hall to mastermind his outing. Hall is a longstanding friend of mine. Great Editor of the News of the World, the UK’s top man for a crisis. If anyone knows the value of celebrity and the danger to newspapers of dragging down their heroes it’s Phil Hall.

When Editor he got a tremendous backlash for exposing England rugby captain Lawrence Dallaglio in a drug sting. Bang to rights, all caught on video. The public didn’t like a hero being laid low – even if he was breaking every rule in the book. When I worked on The Sun we lost readers for attacking Elton John. His flamboyant homosexuality might have shocked the news desk. The readers loved him all the more.

If The Sun has pulled its punches on Schofield, then that’s a highly pragmatic judgement. Last line of their “exclusive” story – he refused to say if he was in a gay relationship. Last line mind. Kind, very kind. Sweet that this was the first weekend of the new lady editor. Nice hand grenade.

Does it matter? Isn’t Phillip Schofield’s sex life a private matter? Of course it is. The public might be interested, but it’s hardly in the public interest. And no modern tabloid editor is going to write the headline PHIL IN GAY SCANDAL. Even if it was remotely true. They would be lashed for it by their readers.

Leave Phillip and his very public private life to one side. The serious issue is who to believe. Who peddles fake news? Or invented news, PR dressed as fact? Who swallows that truth? I mean the journalists, not the just the readers. Do we now learn a version of facts from the Internet completely counter to the established media? Is that the new truth?

The newspapers live or die by their claim that trust belongs with them, the lies live on social media. There’s a big difference between someone’s sex life being news and manipulating the news to suit a PR spin.

I suspect people frankly don’t give much of a damn. Even if Phil had been found reversing out of a camel in Regent Street at 3am. The “story” will die. If it doesn’t – and there’s more to come – then there’s a bigger issue for Good Morning using their airtime, their brands, their presenters to laud “Brave Phil”. Their studios for Phil to give his Sun interview.

Last word to the very funny twitter post which summed up the “revelations”: “I was more amazed when he came out as grey”. Stings ain’t what they used to be.

Steve Sampson journalist is former Assistant, Northern and Scottish Editor of The Sun newspaper, a Director of Trinity Mirror publications including the Daily Record and Sunday Mail and Business Insider. He was a launch presenter of Radio5 Live, founder of First Press Publishing and contributes to the BBC. He is an investor/owner across a series of digital initiatives, and a media adviser.

About Steve Sampson

Steve Sampson has held senior positions in media principally with Mirror Group and Murdoch newspapers. He also founded First Press Publishing which was acquired by Trinity Mirror in 2000 where he served as a Director on various TM companies. He heads up a portfolio of digital assets in online and mobile with connections in the UK and US which include a global launch this year. He was one of two founder Vice Chairmen of Ryder Cup Captain Colin Montgomerie's cancer charity at the inception but now takes no active part.
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