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Police chief to investigate ex-journalist’s Hillsborough ‘spin’ claims

Hayley CourtAn investigation is to be carried out into a former regional daily journalist’s claims that she was asked to “spin” news from the Hillsborough inquest in favour of the police.

Hayley Court, left, who used to work as the Swindon Advertiser’s health reporter, said she felt she had been asked to act unethically after being headhunted to work as a £50,000-a-year specialist press officer by South Yorkshire Police.

Last month a jury found that the 96 Liverpool football supporters who died at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough stadium in 1989 were unlawfully killed and that blunders by the police and ambulance service on the day “caused or contributed to” the disaster.

Now Dr Alan Billings, South Yorkshire’s police and crime commissioner, has announced he will quiz the disgraced force’s interim chief constable Dave Jones over Hayley’s claims.

Hayley,  who also worked as a media relations officer for Hampshire Police from 2010 to 2013, claimed in an interview with The Guardian that from her first day at South Yorkshire she was expected to be a “spin doctor”.

She said she was told her job was to round-up the media at the end of each day’s hearings and tell them: “This is the line.”

The “line” was to emphasise evidence that portrayed South Yorkshire Police in a positive light or suggested that supporters misbehaved, Hayley claimed.

She told The Guardian: “I took that as being told my job was to tell the media what they would be reporting, which isn’t ethical or even possible to do.”

She added: “If [South Yorkshire Police] was going to be found partly responsible for what happened, then all the other interested parties should be found partly responsible as well.

“And if that meant perpetuating the comments about fans being drunk, if that meant perpetuating comments about fans forcing gates, then that is how they were going to do it.”

Hayley was later signed off sick with depression and in a performance review in November 2014, Carrie Goodwin, the South Yorkshire Police head of communications, said: “Hayley disclosed that she felt she had been asked to act in an unethical manner in that she should coerce the media.”

But she said Hayley had been asked to encourage the media to report on both the positive and negative from the inquests.

Dr Billings, who suspended the force’s last chief constable David Crompton over its handling of the Hillsborough inquests, was re-elected as PCC on Friday with more than 144,000 votes.

He said of Hayley’s claims: “If there is truth in this that is shocking and we have to deal with it.”

In a statement given to the BBC, South Yorkshire Police said it was aware of Ms Court’s concerns and would welcome the chance to talk them through.

It said: “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.”

The National Union of Journalists has also sent is support to Hayley for speaking out against what it called “immoral spin and bullying.”

General secretary Michelle Stanistreet said: “The NUJ is here to support press officers and others working in media relations and PR. Hayley Court highlighted a stark example of unacceptable pressure being put on communications staff by employers facing difficult media coverage.

“Hayley Court is an experienced expert and she had set out to report the Hillsborough inquest hearings fairly.

“Her approach would have served South Yorkshire Police well, but she was put under extreme pressure, which she described as bullying, by senior officials to be a spin doctor for the force’s ill-conceived position which included blaming fans for the tragic loss of life at that football game.”

Sian Jones, NUJ vice-president and representative of the PR and communications sector on the union’s national executive, added: “We commend Hayley for speaking out against this approach. The NUJ has an ethical code of conduct for PR members which protects them in exactly such cases.

“Media workers should never feel under undue pressure to push a line they feel uncomfortable with and if their employer insists the union is here to represent them.”

11 comments

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  • May 10, 2016 at 7:51 am
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    Why is anyone surprised that a senior press officer for South Yorkshire Police, paid a fortune by South Yorkshire Police, should be expected by South Yorkshire Police to promote whatever warped version of events they wanted to put forward? Isn’t that what press officers do the world over? Isn’t that why journalists should mostly ignore what they say and take anything left with a heavy pinch of salt? Unlike the journalists covering the inquest, her job was to spin in favour of the police force. Nothing unusual about that. If the reporters at the inquest were doing their jobs, which from all accounts they were, then what she had to say was of little or no interest.

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  • May 10, 2016 at 9:03 am
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    We all know it is tempting but you’ll not find a better example of the extreme downside of leaving journalism for this type of work.

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  • May 10, 2016 at 9:43 am
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    take the shilling, take what goes with it. Except this time it REALLY mattered.

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  • May 10, 2016 at 10:19 am
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    If an organisation paid me £50,000 a year to enhance its reputation I wouldn’t be remotely surprised at being expected to put the best possible spin on evidence. This, surely, is the job.

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  • May 10, 2016 at 10:45 am
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    Having been a journalist on various papers and then a press officer for a nat org it does not surprise me that she was asked to “spin”. What does surprise me is that she seems to be surprised by what she was asked to do. At least I was able to argue the case for/against putting out a certain line before sending out statements while too many press officers/PRs will just do what they are told. What did “surprise” me was how many journalists just accepted what they were told both at national and local level.

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  • May 10, 2016 at 11:04 am
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    I accept that Hillsborough is a sensitive topic, but what did she think she was going to be doing when she went to work for them (for more than likely twice the salary she was on at the paper)? PR staff spinning stories? Next you’ll be telling me that ursine creatures defecate in forests!

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  • May 10, 2016 at 2:04 pm
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    Hayley’s revelations are shocking indeed and she deserves sympathy after suffering so much stress. I’m amazed by the posts underneath from people who assume that this appalling and unethical level of spin is exercised by all organisations and expected of all communications staff. It isn’t, just as every journalist hasn’t been guilty of phone hacking. As for milder levels of embellishment and story manipulation – that never goes on in the regional and national press does it? I suspect more than a few stories and issues have lost their subtlety because of the kind of broad brushstrokes demonstrated in these comments.

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  • May 10, 2016 at 8:28 pm
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    Good on her. While they are at it could someone ask John Motson why he can’t remember who told him the Liverpool fans smashed down the gates. He announced it to the nation at 3.13pm and was asked the day after who gave him the info. Apparently he’d forgotten. John Motson made a living remembering insignificant facts and stats but apparently couldn’t remember who gave him info of seismic significance.

    One for a good working journalist to look into?

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  • May 11, 2016 at 6:17 pm
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    As others have said, that’s the job, isn’t it? The most depressing aspect of this is that this is the kind of cynical media manipulation that happens hundreds of times every day, but it’s only when it involves Hillsborough that it becomes newsworthy.

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  • May 13, 2016 at 3:56 pm
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    Harry Blackwood. Sports commentators, especially football, seem to live on the edge of hysteria about things that don’t really matter. Perhaps that’s why they struggle to recognise something that really does.

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  • May 14, 2016 at 9:25 am
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    Why would the Press use what South Yorkshire had to say from its spin on the inquest. The hearing would have been rammed with reporters, providing contemporaneous information as evidence from all sides was presented.

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