Police’s secret media strategy with council over Sheffield trees operation exposed

Dozens of police officers oversaw tree-felling operations in Sheffield in early 2018. Pic: Scott Merrylees
Dozens of police officers oversaw tree-felling operations in Sheffield in early 2018. Pic: Scott Merrylees
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South Yorkshire Police worked on a secret joint communications strategy with Sheffield Council and highways firm Amey for a highly-controversial operation against anti-tree felling protesters – before senior officers, including Chief Constable Stephen Watson, made repeated public claims the force was “entirely impartial” in the matter.

Transcripts from a series of behind-closed-doors meetings between officials from the three organisations released to The Yorkshire Post under Freedom of Information laws detail extensive discussions about how the handling of the operation – involving dozens of police officers being sent out each day to prevent felling operations in Sheffield being disrupted – would be presented to the public through the media.

The transcripts have been heavily redacted but the published sections include conversations about what each party should say, sharing planned media statements and potentially getting “three-way sign up” before they were sent out.

Tapes put police ‘impartiality’ claims in question

South Yorkshire Police last night said no other organisation signed off its media statements at any time during the operation. But the force admitted some statements had been “shared prior to publication” – something it said was “standard practice in operations such as this”.

Part of the official communications plan that was eventually drawn up for what was known as Operation Quito included now-discredited allegations that protesters had been attempting to seriously injure contractors through attempts to cut them out of trees.

Previous FOI responses have said these allegations, which were never investigated due to a lack of evidence, were first raised by contractors during planning meetings but they are not mentioned in the unredacted parts of the transcripts seen by The Yorkshire Post.

The operation, which lasted between late February and March 2018 and was launched after clashes between protesters and private security guards hired by Amey in January, attracted international media attention and sustained criticism of the force’s approach after multiple arrests were made. After the force’s approach was publicly questioned by Liberal Democrat peer Lord Scriven, Mr Watson wrote an open letter to him on March 12 insisting the force was taking an “entirely impartial” approach.

The Yorkshire Post says: Time for full inquiry into Sheffield trees saga

The transcripts now reveal that at a planning meeting on February 23, Superintendent Paul McCurry discussed what different statements from the parties about the operation could say.

He said: “So what we are thinking about is an impact statement from our bronze commander, an impact statement probably from [redacted] that says this is costing this for Amey, I don’t potentially think we need it from the council but I think we would go just to the Amey side of it because Amey has got the contract to do in work and we have those impact statements.”

An unidentified person then says: “Would anything [inaudible] from the council around preventing the upgrade to the street to the benefit of the general public constitute that?”

McCurry then replies: “It may do. I probably think that probably [redacted] could cover that in.”

Police insist impartiality was maintained

South Yorkshire Police has maintained it handled the operation in an impartial manner.

A spokeswoman for the force said: “Our operational planning follows a set format and involves a range of professionals. The operational activity relating to tree-felling was led by Sheffield City Council and its contractors, and the reference to the impact statement is for those agencies to consider.

“Our impartiality throughout the operation was not affected and since these meetings took place, we have since been subject to an independent review conducted by an Advisory Panel on Policing Protests.”