LONDON — Journalists working at one of Britain's feistiest tabloids do exaggerate headlines, dramatize reporting and occasionally go too far, the paper's editor acknowledged Thursday.
Daily Star Editor Dawn Neesom gave a judicial inquiry into British media ethics a remarkable look into a U.K. tabloid newsroom, where, as she put it, stories are written "to put a smile on people's faces."
Neesom's paper is among the smallest of Britain's daily tabloids, with a circulation of about 650,000 and a decidedly lowbrow tone. Front pages typically feature seminude reality television stars, celebrity gossip and sensationalized stories about immigration.
Neesom said her paper's mission was to entertain, but she evaded claims that the paper systematically distorted stories to titillate its readership.
"To be entertaining doesn't necessarily mean that you can just make a story up," she said.
Inquiry lawyer Robert Jay then flipped through some of the paper's more creative headlines — including one stark front page story that appeared to claim that "American Idol" star Simon Cowell had died.
"TELLY KING COWELL IS DEAD," the June 2, 2011 headline read, followed by the subtitle: "The show's finally over for Simon."
The story itself referred to an off-the-cuff remark by rival talent show judge Gary Barlow claiming that Cowell's reign at the top of British television was over. Cowell himself is alive and well.
Inquiry lawyer Robert Jay asked Neesom how she could justify the alarmist headline.
"It's wrong, isn't it?" Jay said.
"Um ... it's dramatic," Neesom said. "Eye-catching."
Even more dramatic was a front page story published in April 21, 2010, when international air traffic had been paralyzed by a huge ash cloud from the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokul. Over a picture of an airplane wreathed in ash and fire, the headline read: "TERROR AS PLANE HITS ASH CLOUD: Dramatic pictures as jets get OK to defy volcano."
The "pictures" were actually from a television reconstruction of an event that had occurred almost three decades earlier. Jay told Neesom that U.K. airport officials had been so horrified by the misleading headline that they had pulled the paper from their newsstands.
Neesom agreed the ash cloud terror story may have "over-egged the pudding."
"Occasionally, I admit, we do cross lines," she said. "But we do have standards."
The Star is owned by media magnate Richard Desmond, who is also to due to give evidence at the inquiry. Desmond's media empire includes the Daily Express, Britain's Channel Five and celebrity magazines OK! and New!
Prime Minister David Cameron set up the inquiry into media ethics after the eruption of the U.K. phone hacking scandal, when tabloid journalists hacked into the phones of celebrities, politicians and even crime victims.
The hacking scandal centered on Rupert Murdoch's News of the World tabloid, which the media mogul shut down in July.
More than a dozen journalists have been arrested in the hacking scandal, senior executives with Murdoch's News Corp. media empire have lost their jobs, and top U.K. police officers have resigned over their failure to tackle the problem. Other people have been arrested in a related probe into U.K. police accepting bribes from journalists in exchange for information.