Hillsborough Disaster special feature: The police press officer wrongfully sacked after tragedy

Lindsay MacFarlaine
Police South Yorkshire, August 1989
Lindsay MacFarlaine Police South Yorkshire, August 1989
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South Yorkshire constabulary didn’t hesitate when it came to tracking down those in their midst who they reckoned had broken the force’s code of conduct.

But instead of establishing whether policemen had bungled elements of the crowd control which claimed the lives of 96 people, the zealous bosses ordered Special Branch to target their... civilian press officer.

Former Superintendent Tony Pratt

- 'told her waht to say'

Former Superintendent Tony Pratt - 'told her waht to say'

And in the traditions of a force that got so much wrong at Hillsborough, they bungled that inquiry too, sacking an innocent person, later having to reinstate her.

They had been looking for a scapegoat but it royally back-fired on them.

Today, we have tracked down that one-time press officer, Lindsay MacFarlaine, now a successful businesswoman in the north of England.

Never before has she spoken about her sacking by SYP, her reinstatement or her thoughts about working with then chief constable Peter Wright and his entourage.

South Yorkshire Chief Constable Peter Wright., left

South Yorkshire Chief Constable Peter Wright., left

For the first and only time she has agreed to talk to The Star about those emotionally-draining days for her, and the traumatic era for the Hillsborough families and rank and file bobbies.

Ms MacFarlaine, a Leeds University communications graduate, had worked in the health service and local government before being appointed by SYP.

At 26, she became the first female principal press officer - a woman very much alone in an ultra-macho environment.

She recalls: “I loved my job and was proud to work in the public sector. The culture was very different then and very male-dominated.

“I was happy in my job but it was tough being a woman in that organisation.

“Hopefully things have changed for the better. The Chief Constable (Peter Wright) was the boss and was quite feared in many respects.

“Relationships with the media were fraught at that time.

“The press office was managed by officers and all information releases had to be approved by them before going out.

“The media were a ‘necessary evil’ as far as the force was concerned. And although some officers understood the role of the media, the vast majority wanted nothing to do with them.

“This culture was detrimental in the events which unfolded,” she said, a reference to the fact SYP did little to show much compassion, publicly, in the immediate aftermath.

MacFarlaine was a trusted and respected source of information for the media, and used contacts in the press and broadcast sector to try to present a professional image of the force to the public.

But her role during the disaster and the aftermath “was carefully managed”. One of her tasks was to help organise the first police press conference for the world’s media, a short time after the deaths.

It was a heated affair - Wright and others gave short shrift to any challenging questions and, calling an abrupt end to the meeting, yelled at the journalists: “My officers will be vindicated.”

Time was to tell a different story.

Before that conference, MacFarlaine had advised Wright his emphasis should have been on the victims and their families - the people at the heart of this massive human tragedy.

Her advice fell on deaf ears. Her suggestions did not fit in with the defence-mechanism that had kicked in.

From that moment on, her role as a public relations adviser was reduced to that of a puppet.

“I was instructed by (former Supt) Tony Pratt on what to say and when to say it.”

Meanwhile, elements of the press were sensationalising and perverting accounts of what happened.

The Sun ran its infamous headline “The Truth” four days after the disaster.

The story wrongly accused fans of picking pockets of victims, urinating on officers and beating up a PC as he gave the kiss of life.

A powerful account with one flaw – none of it happened.

To this day, MacFarlaine has “absolutely no knowledge about the story” and doesn’t recall fielding any enquiries about it.

Some time after that story was published, the high command became suspicious of the press office at Snig Hill, Sheffield and secretly bugged their telephone calls.

Two high-ranking CID officers then interrogated her for two and a half hours.

“I was in a complete state of shock during that interview,” she recalls.

“These were men I considered to be colleagues and friends. I was made to feel like a criminal and this is something I will never forget.”

They couldn’t pin anything on MacFarlaine, as she’d had no involvement with The Sun or its contributors.

An eight hour disciplinary hearing followed in August 1989.

Her bosses said that other regular information passed from the press unit constituted “leaked information” and fired the Oughtibridge woman.

The commanders did not seem to understand the role of a press officer - one they’d installed her in, in the first place.

Sheffield MP David Blunkett was puzzled by the draconian action.

“It would seem inappropriate for civilians to be disciplined at a time when senior officers responsible for the operational incompetence which surrounded the tragedy find themselves still in posts,” he said.

MacFarlaine said her axing was “a complete shock to me and my family”.

“There was no basis on why it should have happened. I am still bemused to this day on the real reasons behind it.

“Despite the recording of all the press office phones by Special Branch, there was nothing in the transcripts I was ashamed of.

“The other parties in these conversations were present at my appeal (including The Star’s then crime reporter Bob Westerdale who gave evidence on her behalf) and I got my job back.

“This was all an unfortunate distraction during a critical time.”

The Police Authority were not happy with the sacking, for which she appealed, and ordered an appeal into its validity.

Much to the force’s embarrassment, they were told they’d got it wrong and were ordered to re-employ her.

“I was re-instated by the Police Authority and went back to work the next day” she says.

“I asked to see Peter Wright and it was not a pleasant experience.

“From that day I was treated differently, apart from the rank and file, who were very welcoming.

“I realised I could not continue as my position became more and more uncomfortable.

“I recall it was around six months later I was fortunate to be able to move on. I headed communications for Lancashire County Council and after that went into my family business.”

MacFarlaine has never sought any publicity – in fact, she has positively shied away from it.

“I have never used the word scapegoat. Others have. I do however feel my dismissal was a distraction whether planned or not.”

Eddy Shah’s Today newspaper was taken to the Press Council by SYP after claiming she had been a scapegoat. More embarrassment for the force was to follow: the council ruled Today was entitled to conclude that the treatment of her reflected scapegoating. Today (which went out of business in 1995) also claimed she had been the victim of a scandalous piece of bully-boy injustice.

The council ruled the treatment of the police press officer was “a matter of genuine public interest.”

“Looking back I have no regrets working for South Yorkshire Police” she says.

“Police officers, in general, were very professional, supportive and caring.

“I moved on and was proud to serve at the top of my profession in government.

“But, as all of us who have experienced those times, I will never forget.”