IT didn’t bear any of the hallmarks of the story of the decade, to be honest. A bloke posted a message on Twitter about an alleged slight suffered by his little brother on a bus. “So today my wre (wee) brother was refused onto a @Translink_NI bus because he was wearing a Linfield coat. What’s this place coming to?”
As the hours passed, though, union jack knickers right across This Here Pravince went into a twist and before long there was a deafening hiss of steam coming out of the communal ears of loyal Ulster. And if social media outlets didn’t exactly go into meltdown (Linfield and Translink tend not to trend globally), then at the very least Our Wee Country was fit to be tied.
There are many not familiar with the ways of the mainstream media who retain a rather romanticised perception of how hacks go about their job. They think Ulster’s press pack are out and about in a raincoat and trilby with a press card stuck in the hatband, facing down miscreants and ne-er-do-wells, jamming their foot in the door of conmen, putting it up to rogues and villains from dusk till dawn.
In actual fact, they’re more likely to be drinking tea and trawling social media sites for hot-button topics – items of local interest that have gone ‘viral’ (and in media-speak, viral means a thing has been viewed or shared more than 20 times). A cloud over Limavady that looks like Jesus, for example. A bloke who works for a mid-size chain of off-licences who was asked to remove his poppy by management. A woman from Portadown who has 300 onesies. It’s not the kind of thing that’s likely to trouble the Pulitzer Committee, but it’s got pictures and quotes, and in the free-for-all that is the world of online chat, it’s not only absolutely available, it’s absolutely free too.
So it was that a throwaway line on Twitter became a scandal of such far-reaching import that it was featured prominently in the newspapers and lit up the phone lines on the radio talkshows. The narrative was a simple one: some mindless bigot who has no business being behind the wheel of a bus had victimised a blameless kid for no other reason than he was a Linfield support and, by implication, a member of the Protestant, Unionist, Loyalist (PUL) community. Throw in the fact that the boy was on his way to volunteer in a cancer charity shop and it was clear that this so-called bus driver not only hated huns, but sick people too.
Squinter, needless to say, was as outraged as everyone else by the headlines, but once he calmed down, got his breathing right and wiped the tears of indignation and pity from his eyes and read on, things seemed a little, well, odd. First up, Squinter can say a lot of things about the Belfast bus service, but drivers getting picky about what passengers on public transport wear is not one of them. In fact, on a list of items of
apparel popular with bus users, sports leisurewear would probably be high up, and in that category the largest subgroup would probably be sports leisurewear bearing the logo of Celtic, Rangers, Linfield and Cliftonville. The very idea of a driver putting a youngster off a bus for wearing a football top plucked at the very core of Squinter’s credulity.
And then there was the business of the driver closing the door on the unfortunate Linfield fanling. In a radio interview it was claimed that the would-be passenger had one foot on the tarmac and one foot on the first step of the bus when the driver attempted to close the doors on him, and was therefore in a position to back off before the doors hit. A driver ordering a kid off the bus for wearing a Linfield jacket is far-fetched enough, but a driver ordering the kid off before he’d even got on seemed a remote possibility.
And so Squinter took to Twitter to express his feelings while the media was in full cry: “Here's all I'm sayin’,” wrote Squinter. “That story about the bus driver and the guy in the Linfield coat makes no sense whatsoever. Let's watch and see.” The usual handful of snorting insults from the loyalist faithful ensued, but as the day progressed things went quiet and by the next morning it was as if Linfieldgate had never happened. So Squinter tweeted again: “Never mind Down Royal – the safest bet is that this Linfield coat/Translink story goes absolutely nowhere. Any hacks willing to take a bet?”
Sadly, Ulster’s press pack were not up for a wager and things got even quieter until Translink issued a statement saying that after examining “high quality CCTV” the company was in a position to say “this incident did not happen as reported”.
So what exactly did happen? Well, Translink were too well-mannered to release the CCTV footage and thought it prudent not to describe in their statement what really went on. All we know for certain is 1. The guy wasn’t kicked off the bus for wearing a Linfield coat and 2. This story will not figure highly in the next Ulster press awards gala.
Will this make hacks think twice before again plundering the rich and colourful but often, frankly, bonkers world of social media for stories? Almost certainly. Until the next time, anyway.