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.”