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Spin all part of the job says Hillsborough press officer’s ex-editor

Dave KingThe former boss of a press officer who claimed she was asked to “spin” news from the Hillsborough inquest in the police’s favour says such requests are “part and parcel” of her industry.

Dave King, pictured left, has remarked on the claims made by Hayley Court, who worked under Dave as health reporter when he was editor of the Swindon Advertiser.

Hayley 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 specifically to cover the inquests.

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

A jury last month 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

Dr Billings has since suspended the force’s last chief constable David Crompton over its handling of the Hillsborough inquests.

In an interview with The Guardian, Hayley said her brief had been to emphasise evidence that portrayed South Yorkshire Police in a positive light or suggested that supporters had misbehaved.

But writing on his personal blog ‘Passing Shots’ Dave said:  “I’m not sure what all the fuss is about. Spinning is something all press officers and marketeers do from whatever section of industry they represent. It is part and parcel of their work they do to cast their employers or clients in a favourable light.”

Dave said he had met with the head of communications at Thames Valley Police in the past week to discuss media relationships and how the force can convey messages to the community it serves.

He added: “They know the media is a powerful tool – that’s why they employ a team of press officers at Thames Valley, and are very active with their website and social media presence.

“And there are times when off the record briefings with police are useful to put stories into context and to understand what policing issues are around.

“That doesn’t suggest the media are instruments of the police since it is vital they are held to account. But because of the sensitive nature of their work, it is important to have a working relationship.”

Dave continued: “Now [the Thames Valley meeting] is a different ball game to what was going on at Hillsborough and based on past experience with Hayley I’m not quite sure everything appears so black and white as she has expressed.

“However, although it might be considered unseemly for a police force to provide briefings at an inquest, those sort of briefings have been going on for years.

“And if the police were really trying to ratchet up the spin and encourage the media to condemn the evidence or the conduct of those Liverpool fans, don’t you think that this story would have come out earlier, and hardened hacks at the time would have told Hayley to Foxtrot Oscar?!”

Dave left the Advertiser in 2011 to work in journalism training before being appointed Newsquest Berkshire editor-in-chief in January.

14 comments

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  • May 11, 2016 at 8:43 am
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    Of course he’s right.

    It’s all about controlling the ‘perception’ of crime now rather than actual crime itself. There’s a force down south, the name of which escapes me, which employs staff to Tweet good news and only good news.

    It’s like a cross between Orwell and Keystone Cops.

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  • May 11, 2016 at 9:22 am
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    Since this broke I’ve been staggered to believe that SYP believed they could really influence how a public hearing was reported and that Ms Court didn’t understand what would be asked of her, given the job she signed up for.
    If all parties can get that so badly wrong, imagine what waste there must be elsewhere in the £200m + per year organisation…

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  • May 11, 2016 at 9:38 am
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    I agree with Mr King. A press officer’s job is to present the organisation in a favourable light, but I would have thought that a £50,000 specialist should have been advising that a PR strategy based on lies and corruption is likely to come unstuck and make matters much worse when it finally does unravel.
    And judging by my experience with South Yorkshire Police’s obstructive and unhelpful press office, I can’t help wondering why anybody who works in it is worth £50,000 pa anyway.
    This is a disgraceful organisation and has been for years.

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  • May 11, 2016 at 9:59 am
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    “based on past experience with Hayley I’m not quite sure everything appears so black and white as she has expressed”
    Interesting

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  • May 11, 2016 at 10:06 am
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    I don’t believe for a second that Ms Court had no idea what was expected of her. She’s just getting her defence in prior to being potentially made a scapegoat.

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  • May 11, 2016 at 10:41 am
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    If I had been sat in a court room listening to the evidence and a police press officer wandered over and suggested what the top was that day I would tell them to do one.

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  • May 11, 2016 at 11:19 am
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    Amazing now the truth is here, how many are crawling out of the woodwork saying I was made to do it…. Putting something in a “good light” does not save you from a criminal investigation where the lies will trip those people up unless the jury thinks they were just doing their job. Too many “hacking” journalists know that.

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  • May 11, 2016 at 11:26 am
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    The problem for Ms Court was that she was being asked to put a positive spin on things that had been long discounted and discredited – most notably the part played by excessive drinking.

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  • May 11, 2016 at 2:09 pm
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    I hope Dave is not feeling too optimistic about a working relationship with Thames Valley Police after his meeting. The force’s handling of the family complaints over the recovery of Ellis Downes’ body this week in Culham was a stellar example of their mentality. It was a hugely problematic issue, but instead of some competent and professional on or off the record discussions, Thames Valley’s press office simply ignored all questions. And today, they feature in almost every national newspaper accused of hampering the family’s efforts to find their son’s body. Worked out well again.

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  • May 11, 2016 at 4:37 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 5:35 pm
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    PS. I’m assuming there are still some ‘good, working journalists’ left. I realise editors have all but become extinct.

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  • May 14, 2016 at 3:25 pm
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    As has been pointed out, the job of press officers is to protect the reputation of their employer.
    It certainly isn’t about telling lies, which has also been pointed out almost always get found out.
    It should be about pointing out to the top people when they have to put their hands up and admit they were wrong.
    It takes a very able and confident press officer to do this, particularly with an authoritarian organisation like the police.
    Tim Jones, Joint Vice Chair, National Union of Journalists PR Council.

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  • May 16, 2016 at 2:16 pm
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    Classic bit of doublethink about the ethics of PR from Tim Jones. Of course lies don’t always get found out: only the ones that are found out, self-evidently, and with more PR and fewer proper journalists, the likelihood of the lies being found out diminishes daily. But keep telling yourself that, Tim, if it helps you to sleep at night.

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