Ooh, aah, it's the nicer Star

The Daily Star was once 'needlessly nasty', says its editor, Peter Hill. Now he has dropped the paper's anti-PC stance, brought in something for the ladies - and doubled its sales. He talks to Vincent Graff
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The Independent Online

Peter Hill, the editor of the Daily Star, is talking about "pooftahs". He does not want them to appear in his paper ever again. Don't jump to conclusions. "At one time, you might well have seen headlines talking about 'pooftahs' and stuff like that," Hill says. "Well, you'll never see that again. I think it is repugnant and it is also stupid."

The paper has changed somewhat since one of his predecessors, Brian Hitchen, could lead the Star's front page with a story headlined "Pooftahs on parade" alongside a piece attacking "strident, mincing preachers of filth". The article earned a rebuke from the Press Complaints Commission.

Quite right too, believes Hill. Britain's most downmarket mainstream tabloid made the mistake of becoming offensive. Now it has entered a more gentle phase. Politically incorrect name-calling "is needless and it is nasty, and I do not want to run a nasty newspaper". Hill sees no reason why the Daily Star cannot be enjoyed by gay people. "It is really stupid to alienate whole sections of the population," he says. "It is bad business and it is bad per se." His peace and goodwill spreads further. "We don't go in for racism, we don't go in for sexism, ageism, any of that stuff."

Peter Hill is an unlikely Daily Star editor. He drives himself to work in a tiny Smart Car, quotes Marx and Hobbes, and at lunchtime walks to Pret a Manger to pick up a sandwich to eat at his desk. He sails, plays tennis and carries a lucky conker - I am not making this up - to ward off colds.

After a few years at The Daily Telegraph in the Seventies, he gave up journalism to take courses in American studies and political philosophy at Manchester University. He gave up after two years to re-enter the trade at the other end, joining the new Daily Star as a sub-editor on its first day, 2 November 1978. He never left.

These days he is trying to reduce the paper's reliance on northern, white, working-class male readers. Though they still provide a very large proportion of his sales - and he is pleased to have them - he has made efforts to broaden the appeal of the paper. Now 30 per cent of his sales are to women, and his proportion of readers from the AB1 social group is rising (though still tiny). So he softened the paper, scrapped the laddish "ooh, ahh, Daily Star" slogan and an amusingly smutty pet's advice column called "Do you mind if I stroke it?" and brought in health features, fashion pages and Star "hunks".

The results have been extraordinary. While The Sun and the Mirror watch their sales slide - the latter has lost 7.6 per cent of its circulation in a year - last month, the Daily Star sold 25.5 per cent more copies than it did a year ago. By the end of the year, it is likely to have broken through the million barrier, meaning that it will have doubled its sales in just three years. Next month, he launches the Welsh Daily Star - attempting to steal readers from the Mirror, which recently withdrew its special edition for the principality.

But it is not social inclusiveness that has seen Hill's Daily Star enjoying the most surprising growth spurt seen in newspapers for years. He has done it by opening up a new market below The Sun and the Mirror. He has largely cut out real news. "I made my mind up what was needed right at the beginning - that people want to read about what they see on television. That doesn't necessarily just mean soap stars, it means everybody. They might be footballers, conceivably they could be politicians, they could be members of the Royal Family. It really depends on whatever is hot at that moment."

What has been hot recently is the Channel 4 reality series Wife Swap. While the Mirror was leading on "10 years of rate rises - bank governor's warning", the Star's front page yelled: "Get Out - neighbours want rid of Wife Swap scroungers". Hill led on the programme four days running. "That's nothing," he says, "When Big Brother was in its heyday, I think I splashed on it on 28 days in a row."

For reasons I cannot quite fathom, he denies the obvious: that he is willing to remove as much news from his newspaper as the market demands. He claims: "I do make sure that I cover the news pretty much" - the "pretty much" seems quite crucial - and points out that he has just appointed a former Sunday Telegraph man, Macer Hall, to be the Star's political editor, a post that had lain dormant "for ages".

Yet the day we meet, Gerry Adams and David Trimble have been trying to inject new life into the Good Friday Agreement and the Star does not carry a single word on the subject. "Well, it wasn't very interesting," Hill says.

He admits that he does have less hard news coverage than the Mirror and The Sun, but says that this is why their circulations are dropping - albeit from sales positions still well above that of the Star - and that his is on the up. "The Sun takes itself desperately seriously," he says.

But is his paper for anything beyond a quick smile? Isn't it fantastically trivial? "It is fantastically entertaining. A lot of newspapers think it is a crime to entertain their readers. They think that their job is solely as purveyors of hard news. But it isn't that any more, because television does all that."

So what will his new political editor write about? Hill ponders the subject. "Well, Blair vs Brown is interesting," he says. "And I am very pro-Europe, and from time to time, I do put quite serious things in on that." He thinks it important occasionally to counter the "ludicrous lying propaganda" he sees about Europe in other papers. But, he adds: "I am never going to put yards of politics in the paper because I don't think people will read it. I think it's like a form of masturbation the way that newspapers do page after page on it."

Hill has just been appointed to the Press Complaints Commission, where he will sit in judgement over the misdeeds of his rivals. The Star's niceness is illustrated by the fact that in the past seven years, it has been the subject of a PCC adjudication seven times; the equivalent figure for the Daily Mail is 25, albeit that the vast majority of complaints were rejected.

Anyone feeling mischievous might wish to alert the PCC to Dominik Diamond's Daily Star movie column from 19 October, in which the film reviewer complained about the onset of the cold weather. When the weather suddenly snaps, wrote Diamond, "I turn from cynical, hard-boiled, aggressive tough guy into a big poof."