Two front-page headlines inspired Paul Gallagher to call a motion for his community to boycott The Sun. The first was the paper's infamous "The Truth" splash, which smeared Liverpool fans following the Hillsborough Disaster. The other, "Husband Mows Down Vigil Gran", was much closer to home.
"It was a brutal headline that had absolutely nothing to do with the truth," says Paul, who is the Councillor for Derry City & Strabane in Northern Ireland. The headline in question was referring to 78-year-old Nellie Doherty, who was killed in nearby Donegal when a vehicle shunted her husband's car, sending it towards her while she was praying at the roadside memorial of a family friend. The first of three subsequent apologies from the newspaper made it as far as page 15.
"[The Sun] think they have a license to do what they want," he says. "They have no concern about people's lives. The family members came up to me and they were supportive of the motion being brought forward because it deeply hurt them. From that headline, [a reader could interpret it as] their father being accused of murdering their mother. How do you reconcile that in your head?"
The results of the motion, which was passed unanimously in 2017, urged local businesses to boycott The Sun and support Liverpool's influential "Total Eclipse of the S*n" campaign. The results remain clear. Copies of The Irish Sun are hard to find, and shops, cafes, pubs and clubs all brandish stickers and posters in support of the boycott.
Paul's efforts in Derry were used as a blueprint, with ten councils across England's North West pursuing similar measures to boycott the paper. Councils including Cheshire West and Chester, Preston, West Lancashire and Flintshire in North Wales have all moved to boycott the paper, citing the damage the tabloid has inflicted on communities and individuals.
"Looking at Facebook, there's the odd shop that still sells it, but by and large you can't get a copy of The Sun in Skelmersdale," Ian Murray, West Lancashire County Councillor, tells me. "I know the Asda sells it, but there's a fella that goes in and puts a pile of papers on top of them. He buries them every morning, and at the end of every day they all get sent back because the people that want to read them can't find them."
Ian, a full-time postman and member of the Communication Workers Union (CWU), says the boycott is prominent within the trade union movement, supported by substantial memberships nationwide. Unite, Unison, the GMB and the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) have all passed national motions to boycott the paper, as well as not allowing The Sun's staff on their premises. More recently, the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union – which passed a similar motion in 2017 – reaffirmed its support for the boycott.
Neil Smith, a GMB Political Officer, tells me he feels more strongly than ever about the importance of a united opposition to the newspaper. "It's not just [Hillsborough] – no disrespect to Hillsborough – it's the bigger picture in what that paper does to communities," he says. "They tell blatant lies and then put an apology at the bottom of page 27, where nobody looks."
A proud Manchester United fan, Neil points to how the boycott has even spread across fierce rivalries by associating itself with social projects like Fans Supporting Foodbanks. A motion at the 2017 Football Supporters' Federation conference, brought forward by two Merseyside-based supporters groups – Spirit of Shankly (Liverpool) and Blue Union (Everton) – saw a united front, with 70 fan groups nationwide showing their support for the boycott.
"Other fans have seen what can be done," says Neil. "Come together, forget the rivalries and work as a team. The fans' forum is building. Right across the region and right across the country. That's the only way we're going to get rid of the gutter press."
Merseyside's long-term efforts to boycott The Sun have been infectious. With the backing of councils, fan groups and unions – as well as a substantial social media following – Liverpool-based campaign group Total Eclipse of the S*n has inspired individuals and groups across the country to make banners, pass on the message to local businesses and take a firm stance in not speaking to or being affiliated with the paper. Although the most robust boycott efforts remain on Merseyside, with The Sun's reporters banned from both Anfield and Goodison Park, other football organisations have taken the message to their communities too.
Proud Canaries, the official LGBT+ Norwich City supporters group, is one such organisation. Together with 40 other Pride in Football groups across the country – united by match day banners and social media campaigns – their presence is changing attitudes and behaviour towards the gay community and encouraging a more inclusive atmosphere at the football. It's for those reasons and the treatment of a club legend that group organiser Di Cunningham thinks it's important to support the boycott.
"Justin Fashanu is iconic for Canary fans, not just as a sporting hero but as a symbol of inclusion: the first million pound black footballer, adopted in rural Norfolk as a Barnardo's kid and, of course, still the only elite male player to come out as gay," says Di. "His strength of character in coming out in 1990 – before many of the legal equalities now afforded to the LGBT+ community, at a time of institutional bigotry and before any kind anti-homophobia initiative in football – was immense.
"But The Sun rewarded his bravery with exploitation. The paper paid for a front page exclusive [of Fashanu coming out], but provided no counsel or signposting for advice, and demanded no support mechanisms from footballing authorities or its own readers. The story was salacious, simply about titillation rather than taking an opportunity to change mindsets and combat hatred. Once Justin was outed he was left to deal with the repercussions alone.
"And the paper continues – even in an age of equal marriage and hate legislation – to hound bi and gay male players. In recent years the paper has hinted that it is aware of and in a position to out a number of Premier League footballers. This prurient and predatory editorial practice has no place in 21st century journalism, and while The Sun continues to sensationalise queer relationships the move to normalising them is set back."
An organisation with a different approach to the boycott is Stop Funding Hate. Founded in 2016 in response to significant anti-immigrant and racist sentiment expressed in tabloid newspapers including The Sun, the campaign set about encouraging corporations to pull advertising in order to send a clear message to tabloids that such rhetoric is unacceptable. The organisation was also influential in encouraging student unions to stop stocking newspapers like The Sun in their respective outlets. In a column for The Sun, then-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson referred to the group as "leftie activists trying to silence newspapers".
"The core idea is you can use consumer pressure to put the spotlight on the advertisers and say to companies like John Lewis, Co-op or Lego: 'Are you really happy to be aligned with these front pages which are demonising people who are your customers or your staff?'" says Richard Wilson, Director of Stop Funding Hate. "I think The Sun has been under public pressure from all different directions, and I think we're part of that story. My impression is that some of the changes we’ve seen in the press now have been evidence that the public pressure has worked."
Going forward, Richard says that Stop Funding Hate want to pass on what they've learned to other community groups and charities: "We think it would be really valuable if more organisations out there were actually aware of how powerful this tactic is and looking for ways to use this themselves. We're about to engage in an effort to train up other groups in how to do this."
Richards points out that you don't need to look far in society to see someone who has been targeted by The Sun and similar newspapers, whether it's minority religious groups or trans people: "If you put together all the groups that've been attacked by the press in the last few years, and then you think, 'All those people will have friends, family and colleagues who care about this,' that's probably quite a large part of the population."
Jim Chisem, Co-chair of the Huddersfield Town Fans Association sums it up: "I think what the campaign in the wider UK is trying to do is actually to start a conversation. Particularly after Leveson – what is the role of the press? What's acceptable for the press to do? If that's their business model, the more they do and the more people they piss off, the more likely a campaign like this will gain traction."