(From the left) Dr Alan Billings, South Yorkshire PCC, Dave Jones, new interim Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police and Julia Mulligan, North Yorkshire PCC during a press conference at the Mercure Hotel in Sheffield
South Yorkshire ’s police and crime commissioner is to investigate claims a press officer was asked to “spin” news during the Hillsborough inquests.
Earlier this week we reported on Hayley Court, a former communications specialist, who claimed she was instructed by her bosses to emphasise certain evidence to the press in order to gain positive coverage for the disgraced force.
Ms Court was the acting director of communications for the Association of Chief Police Officers when she was headhunted by South Yorkshire Police to work specifically on the Hillsborough inquests .
She said she believed she was employed to help South Yorkshire police deal honestly and help reverse some of the damage after the force blamed innocent victims of the 1989 disaster.
However Ms Court, who started the job a few months after the inquests began, claims that she was actually there as a ‘spin doctor,’ and was told “Your job is to round up the media at the end of the day and tell them: ‘This is the line.’”
After the news of Hayley’s claims came to light, the newly re-elected police and crime commissioner for South Yorkshire, Dr Alan Billings has claimed they will be investigating the allegations.
He told the BBC: “If there’s truth in this, that is shocking and we have to deal with it.”
Hayley’s claims are the latest in a long-line of accusations made against the disgraced force in light of the results of a two-year inquest into the disaster which exonerated fans and laid any blame at the foot of the police and emergency services.
Ms Court, who said she refused to follow SYP’s instructions and complained it was unethical throughout, said she felt ‘duty bound’ to expose the force’s media strategy.
She added: “The South Yorkshire police, having made a full apology for the Hillsborough disaster in 2012, should not have been seeking to spread the blame on to others, including Liverpool supporters, at the inquests, and seeking to influence the media to take that line.
“I tried to make this point in every formal way within the South Yorkshire police, but in response I faced criticism for my own performance and felt bullied. The police are upheld as models of behaviour in society; South Yorkshire police rely now on being a very different force from 1989, yet unfortunately there are still similarities.
“It is so important for public confidence in the police that South Yorkshire police finally recognise this and reform.”
Ms Court said it was clear to her that the “line” was to prominently highlight evidence that suggested South Yorkshire police’s failings were not in fact to blame for the disaster, and to stress any evidence given by witnesses that supporters had misbehaved.
She said: “No self-respecting member of the press is going to listen to that, especially from a press officer working for one of the culprits of the Hillsborough disaster. It was an impossible task – and secondly, I just wasn’t prepared to get involved in doing it.”
A spokesperson for South Yorkshire police last week told the ECHO: We are aware of the concerns that have been raised by a member of staff regarding her role within the Hillsborough Team. A number of very detailed concerns and questions have been raised with us via the press in the last 24 hours. We acknowledge these serious concerns and we would welcome an opportunity to talk these through with the staff member and to enter a process of independent review and mediation.
“Some of the issues raised have been considered before through the force’s grievance procedure. Specifically in relation to the concerns raised about suggested unethical practices, but these were not substantiated at the time. However it is clear that the staff member remains concerned about her experiences and following the outcome of the Hillsborough Inquests and we would like to talk to her and give these matters further consideration.
“We would be happy to consider engaging an independent third party to assist in resolving her issues of concern and address any issues that arise from a review if this would help.”