Dawn's 'Star' turn: a spoof too far?

The presses were almost ready to roll when a rebellion broke out over a Sharia law send-up. But perhaps the red top's journos aren't on the same wavelength as many of its readers

To some observers it was nothing more than a storm in a double-D cup. To others it was a tale of a brave newsroom backlash against an editorial decision that could have placed staff, according to the motion passed by the Daily Star's National Union of Journalists chapel (union branch), at "a very serious risk of violent reprisals from religious fanatics".

Either way, the choice by the tabloid's management to pull a feature that mocked Sharia law, turning page 6 of last Wednesday's edition of the Daily Star into the "Daily Fatwah" (sic), saw the red top make headlines in other newspapers and even provoke a flurry of accusations of "spinelessness" and "pre-emptive surrender" by bloggers in the United States.

The mock front page was headlined "The Daily Fatwah" with the sub-heading "How Britain's fave newspaper would look under Muslim rule". An offer to "Win hooks just like Hamza's" was illustrated with a picture of the jailed firebrand preacher. Elsewhere there was a promise of "a free beard for every bomber", a page 3 Burka Babes picture special and a "be-headline of the day: Jack Straw stoned, he ignored one veiled threat too many".

Management and staff accounts of last Tuesday evening's events differ markedly. A call placed to the editor, Dawn Neesom, was promptly returned by associate editor Kieron Saunders, who explained that the idea for the Daily Fatwah page "came about because we were looking into various follow-ups to the Jack Straw veil row. The idea of how the Daily Star might look under Sharia law came up and the art desk was asked to prepare a page.

"During the preparation of that page a number of staff became unhappy. They brought it to the attention of their union official, who called a brief meeting. The editor immediately pulled the whole idea before it really got off the ground. The feeling among management was that if members of staff were worried by it, then it was bound to offend Muslims and on those grounds we wouldn't run it. The page never got as far as being ready for inclusion in the paper anyway," Saunders concluded.

But other sources dispute that version. It is understood that Neesom had already left the office on Tuesday evening, when at about 7pm a member of the production staff saw the page for the first time. Dismayed at the tone and content, he rapidly convened a meeting of the paper's NUJ chapel. In the editor's absence, joint deputy editor Ben Knowles, who was poached from lads' magazine Zoo in the summer, was forced to deal with the crisis.

Contrary to Saunders' assertion that the page in question "never got as far as being ready for inclusion", another corroborated line of inquiry reveals that the page was not only ready to go, but also scheduled for publication. It was only after the NUJ meeting that the "Daily Fatwah" spoof was spiked.

However, not all Star staffers were in favour of the decision. "I endorse what the Daily Star was trying to do," said a journalist there, who asked not to be named. "The reaction was wrong. My view is that if a few guys want to wave placards outside, then that this is the price of free speech."

Neesom's Daily Star - the leanest and meanest of tabloid teams - has found itself in the media spotlight before.

Earlier this year, the paper was forced to apologise to England footballer Ashley Cole following a story in which it named him as one of three players who allegedly participated in a gay orgy. In August 2004, the Star splashed on the wrong evictee from the Big Brother house - a huge gaffe considering the acres of newsprint that it devotes to coverage of reality TV shows.

Neesom, 41, was appointed editor in December 2003 after her predecessor, Peter Hill, moved across to the Daily Express. She was born in Bow, east London; her mother was a cleaner and her father a lorry driver. An experienced kickboxer, her career began in 1982 on the Newham Recorder. She moved to Woman's Own before joining The Sun in 1992, where she spent five years as a feature writer and then women's editor. After that, she jumped ship to the Daily Star, first as features editor and then associate editor before becoming deputy editor in 2003. In that role she helped boost the paper's female readership.

However, Neesom has presided over a plunge in the Daily Star's fortunes. In a declining red-top market, the paper's September circulation figures are down by 6.28 per cent year on year. It is now selling an average of 800,569 - just a quarter of The Sun's 3,216,918.

Three years ago, under Hill, who had seen sales rise by 25 per cent as he refocused on celebrities, glamour models and reality TV, the paper was selling nearly 930,000.

Neeson is tall and slim - one senior journalist said she dressed "like a dominatrix version of Annie Lennox, with 3in heels, multiple ear-piercings, tattoos and bleached hair." The source added: "Something about her seems to bewitch small men. She has a sharp London accent and is a diehard West Ham fan."

While she certainly isn't viewed as an inspirational tabloid editor in the mould of Kelvin MacKenzie, staff see her as "very tough, competent and professional". Another source gave a different view: "She hasn't a clue about politics and has zero political contacts. She is also deeply unsympathetic to asylum-seekers, whom she believes are taking Britain for a ride."

Dawn Neesom herself has said: "Our readers are the ones at the sharp end. They are not getting the council houses because people are queue-jumping. We get letters and texts on the subject every day."

Texts from Star readers last week would appear to support her paper's hardline stance on Muslim integration.

"Well done Jack Straw - when in Rome do as the Romans," wrote Jenny. "I wouldn't dream of visiting an Iranian politician wearing my bikini as I would probably be stoned to death."

There's little doubt that among some Star readers, at least, the "Daily Fatwah" would have found a sympathetic audience.

A week in the life: Chat, chests and celebrities

The formula of the 'Daily Star' is a relentless diet of 'Big Brother' gossip, celebrity break-ups and topless babes, with a smattering of "serious" news confined to page 2.

The big Star stories last week included Madonna's adoption of "13-month-old tot" (babies are always "tots") David Banda. Readers learned that the superstar "splurged £15,000 on luxury toys to welcome him" - a sum, it thoughtfully pointed out, that "the tot's dirt-poor dad" would take 74 years to earn in Malawi. Thursday's paper reported on Sir Paul McCartney's fractious divorce. Under the headline, "Macca The Whacker!", the paper said that Mucca - the Star's nickname for ex-wife Heather - claimed "he stabbed and throttled me", with Macca responding: "It's all lies." The paper's "sizzling" Boob Watch contest to unearth "the next Page 3 superstar" continues. Topless pictures sent in regretfully can't be returned and the editor's decision is final.

MEDIA DIARY

Read your diarist

Does Daily Mail editor-in-chief Paul Dacre not read his own paper's Ephraim Hardcastle column? Last Thursday, the Mail went big on how art collector Steve Wynn stuck his elbow into a Picasso. Ephraim scribbler Peter McKay had elegantly penned the same story nine days earlier.

Out of the frying pan

And so the ranks swell again. The Daily Telegraph has a new chief leader writer in the shape of David Hughes. He used to be political editor of the Mail and also did a stint as that paper's leader writer a few months ago until he grew bored of being shouted at by Dacre. Will Lewis, take note.

Feathers ruffled at IPC

Tut-tutting at IPC about a new catering department missive. While the Marie Claire and Country Life gals are happy enough with the new gluten-free flapjacks and greater choice of 4-per-cent-fat fruit cake slices, there have been grumblings over news that the "chicken on the deli bar is now always halal". The IPC offices can barely justify such ethnic diversity on the menu, let alone making it compulsory, notes one employee. However, the mag hacks are less concerned by the politics of political correctness than they are that halal slaughter methods are not kind to the little feathery animals.

Friends in high places

Few are that impressed by Simon Heffer's appointment as acting Comment editor at The Daily Telegraph. But it will be particularly unwelcome news for columnist Alice Thomson. Her doting on David Cameron is only matched by Heffer's loathing for the Tory upstart. Jan Moir is currently standing in for Thomson during her maternity leave, but Heffer would be unwise to think that this could give him time to plot her permanent removal from his beat. Thomson's friends are letting it be known that she has become very chummy of late with Aidan Barclay, acting proprietor of the Telegraph Group.

Sporting chance?

An intriguing rumour is emanating from the upper echelons of The Guardian. Though the current editor, Alan Rusbridger, is showing no signs of giving up his Berliner-sized empire, a successor is quietly being groomed. The name being mentioned is not that of executive editor Ian Katz or policy editor Jonathan Freedland, both widely tipped in the past, but the no-nonsense sports editor, Ben Clissitt. How curious.

Lite on the detail

When Ken Livingstone was cleared of bringing his office into disrepute last Thursday, thelondonpaper, Rupert Murdoch's freesheet, frontpaged the story with a beaming picture of Ken. However, the rival London Lite thought the judgment so insignificant that it made only a short paragraph on page three. The paper also failed to mention that the dispute had centred on comments Livingstone made to Oliver Finegold, reporter with London Lite's big sister, the Evening Standard.

Ghost in the office

In The Observer last weekend, Paul Levy reviewed a clutch of food books, including Gordon Ramsay's autobiography, Humble Pie. He made this observation: "Following Marco Pierre White's autobiography White Slave (lovingly ghosted by James Steen), we have his former acolyte, now rival, Gordon Ramsay's Humble Pie - so exuberantly angry, boastful, cliché-ridden, expletive-laden and touchingly sincere that I can't believe that a single sentence has been written by anyone but the failed footballer, great cook, telly star and businessman himself." Er, Humble Pie was actually ghosted by The Observer's very own Rachel Cooke.

Listing and shifting

Having gone "quality" since the launch of the London freesheets, the Evening Standard is now even showing signs of good manners. It has decided to close down the TV listings department at the paper, but has kindly given the editor, Terry Ramsey, and most of his footsoldiers time to tidy up their desks and negotiate their settlements from inside. The TV pages are now going to have their "quality" content provided by Press Association feeds.

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