Daily Star editor denies paper has anti-Islamic agenda

Daily Star Editor Dawn Neesom

Dawn Neesom tells inquiry that tabloid is ‘balanced’ in its coverage, and lawyer Nicole Patterson reveals private investigator Steve Whittamore worked for stablemate the Express for five years after his conviction for illegally obtaining information

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Dawn Neesom told the inquiry she was not aware of the Daily Star ever making use of private investigators

Daily Star editor Dawn Neesom has denied that the tabloid has an anti-Islamic agenda, insisting that it is “balanced” in its coverage.

Giving evidence to the Leveson inquiry, Neesom was asked about claims by former Star reporter Richard Peppiatt that the title pursued an anti-Islamic agenda at the expense of accurate reporting.

She said that the Star “writes stories to be as accurate as possible” and had a “balanced agenda”, promising to provide the inquiry with examples of positive coverage of Islam.

In turn she denied that the tabloid had published positive coverage of far-right group the English Defence League. She said that, as a part of a “Jewish-owned company”, the Star had been “concerned” about the possibility of the EDL achieving status as a political party and had not intended to show any support for the group.

Several stories run by the Star were detailed in court, forcing Neesom to defend its coverage of Islam and other issues after inquiry counsel Robert Jay QC said the stories could be seen as “way over the line of what is ethical”.

A front page headline – “Muslim thugs as young as 12 in knife attack on Brit schoolboy” – was shown by Jay to have in fact been about threats made on Facebook.

Neesom said that the headline “could be interpreted as being about a physical attack”, and admitted it was “not good”.

She was also asked about another front page headline: “Terror as plane hit ash cloud”. The headline referred to a dramatic reconstruction in a TV documentary, rather than a real incident, she acknowledged.

“A lot of our stories are taken from TV shows,” she said.

Appearing prior to Neesom, Northern & Shell’s chief lawyer Nicole Patterson was quizzed about the publisher’s use of private detectives and so-called “search agents”.

Patterson said that she had not known about the use of search agencies prior to conducting a review in 2010, and Neesom denied having any knowledge of the use of private investigators by the Star, specifically Steve Whittamore, prior to her appearance at the inquiry this morning.

According to the Information Commissioner’s 2006 report “What Price Prvacy Now?” (PDF), the Express and Star titles made modest use of Whittamore in comparison with other newspapers prior to 2006. The Express made use of his services 63 times and the Star four times, compared with 952 by the Daily Mail at the top of the list.

But, crucially, Patterson told the court that the Daily Express continued to use Whittamore after he was convicted of obtaining information for newspapers illegally in 2005.

A 2011 internal audit overseen by Patterson found that the last invoice for Whittamore’s company, JJ Services, was dated July 2010. She told the court that she didn’t know whether his services were still being used.

The audit was part of a review of the tabloid’s activity between 2000 and 2010. Patterson said that the sum total spent on so-called “search agents” such as Whittamore was £115,000 over the ten-year period. The amount was “very very small” in comparison with the publisher’s overall expenditure, which included £9m in 2008 alone on pictures, she said.

Payments to Whittamore ranged between £176 and £2,687, and invoices included the names of various celebrities.

The review also turned up very few significant unexplained payments, Patterson said, with the largest unexplained payment £1,500 or £1,600.

She also told the inquiry that the review had found no evidence of phone hacking or other illegality at Northern & Shell’s four newspapers.

The inquiry is hearing solely Northern & Shell staff today, with proprietor Richard Desmond to appear this afternoon.

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