Overwrought headlines (like the one above) are the bread and butter of tabloid journalism, and accuracy comes second, editors of two of Britain's most outrageous rags told an ethics panel there on Wednesday. And while the editors of the Daily Star and sister paper Daily Express conceded they'd overstepped ethical bounds, their understated explanations of some of their most grievously misleading front pages didn't quite justify the practice of falsely reporting celebrity deaths, but they were entertaining.
Which is fitting, since Daily Star editor Dawn Neesom explained that the goal of her paper was to entertain more than inform. "To be entertaining doesn't necessarily mean that you can just make a story up," she said, according to the Associated Press. Not necessarily. But sometimes. Peter Hill, the former Daily Express editor, took an equally lax view of the role of fact in journalism: "I felt the stories should be published because there was reason to believe they might possibly be true," he told the panel. And when challenged on a number of misleading headlines, Both Neesom and current Express editor Hugh Whittow were hilariously understated in her justifications.
Neesom said the Star's headline about Simon Cowell leaving X Factor, "Telly King Cowell Is Dead," was "was designed to be an eye-catching headline," but she sullenly came around to the notion that it could be misleading. The Guardian quotes her saying, "If one was going to be pernickity about it – or pompous – it's wrong isn't it?" The inspiration for the headline turns out to come from replacement judge Gary Barlow's remarks to the paper, which put the word "dead" in quotes in its online story, but let its cover announce the death of a major TV star. "It could be said someone reading this would say 'Oh goodness, he's died," Neesom said. We're not really sure what other first impression she thought readers might get.
Asked about misleading photos of a plane with its engines wreathed in fire, and the during 2010's Eyjafjallajokul volcanic ash cloud, along with the headline "Terror as Plane Hits Ash Cloud," she said the paper had "maybe over-egged the pudding." That's a quaint way of saying they completely screwed up, which we can surmise from the fact that airports pulled the misleading issue from their newsstands. Newsom told the inquiry the photo came from a television documentary, and since we go in for over-dramatic disaster programming, we actually recognized it from the British Airways Flight 9 episode of Air Crash Investigations. The episode was about a plane flying into a volcanic ash cloud. So to be fair, it's a real fake image of a plane flying into a volcanic ash cloud.
Confronted with the Daily Express's headline, "Salt Banned in Chip Shops," Whittow said it was "an experiment," pointing out that "If you couldn't have salt on your chips tomorrow, Mr Jay, you wouldn't be very happy about it." But in fact, salt hadn't been banned. In the fourth paragraph of its online version of the story, the Express explains: "Cash-strapped Lib Dem-run Stockport Council, facing cuts of £50million over four years, wants fish and chip shops, cafes and Indian restaurants to hide salt shakers behind the counters." We're pretty sure that's not the same thing as a ban, but then we tend to ask for salt for the fries if none is apparent.
As for the headline announcing "75% Say: Quit the EU Now," based on a poll conducted by the anti-European Union Express itself, The Guardian pointed out that a "YouGov poll actually found 28 percent were in favour of quitting the EU, 47 percent in favour of renegotiating the treaty." Whittow said his paper's claim would be justified in the body copy. But that doesn't make much sense, as the Express story posted online leads with this sentence: "Given a choice to stay in or get out – without the option to renegotiate – 52 per cent would quit, 31 per cent would stay in, while the rest are 'don’t knows'. " It doesn't make reference to the 75 percent figure again. When Whittow was asked if he thought that could be misleading, he said, "I accept from what you say, yes."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.