Hillsborough inquests: South Yorkshire police 'spin' evidence

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Media caption,

Hayley Court: "It was so wholly unethical, I couldn't be part of it anymore"

A former South Yorkshire Police press officer claimed she was asked to "spin" news during the Hillsborough inquests, the BBC can reveal.

Hayley Court was employed by South Yorkshire Police (SYP) just after the hearings began in 2014.

Documents seen by BBC News show she was told a "performance issue" was her "failure" to "redress the imbalance" in the media's reporting of the inquests.

SYP said her claims of "unethical practice" were "not substantiated".

'Fed a line'

Ms Court, 30, was taken on as the force's Hillsborough communications specialist with a salary of more than £50,000 but has since left.

She claims she was asked to encourage the media to report evidence favourable to the police case, including that fans were partly to blame.

Ms Court said when she took the job she had hoped to illustrate the SYP force of 2014, when the inquests began, was not the same as it had been in 1989 - the year of the disaster.

But she said "very quickly" she felt like she "had been fed a line".

"I felt like I had been told my job would be one thing, but actually it was something very different."

Image source, Hillsborough inquests
Image caption,
Ms Court said she had hoped to show the SYP force of 2014 was not the same as the 1989 force.

She said she felt "very foolish" and "naive".

"I felt like I was then part of the problem, which couldn't have been further from what I was trying to achieve by accepting the role in the first place. And I felt that I was letting people down by continuing to be part of it."

Ms Court spent around four months doing the job and went daily to the coroner's court in Warrington, Cheshire.

But after raising concerns within the force about her role she became ill with anxiety and depression and was signed off work.

Her job involved writing daily reports about the hearings, which were sent to former and serving South Yorkshire Police officers, as well as liaising with reporters covering the inquests.

'Perpetuating defensiveness'

Jurors ruled 96 Liverpool fans who died at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final had been unlawfully killed. They also criticised SYP's planning for the match and highlighted a catalogue of failures by senior officers on the day.

The stadium was also said to have contained "defects" that contributed to the disaster, and Sheffield Wednesday FC and South Yorkshire Metropolitan Ambulance Service were criticised.

The supporters were exonerated of any blame.

Ms Court sat in on meetings between South Yorkshire Police's legal team during the inquests.

Describing her impression of their approach to the case, she said: "If [SYP] was going to be found partly responsible for what happened, then all the other interested parties should be found partly responsible as well.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Relatives react after the jury delivered its verdict at the new inquests into the Hillsborough disaster

"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.

"No-one could have failed to see that SYP was going to be found largely responsible for what happened at Hillsborough, and I think it was more about if there is less responsibility that we can take, then we should seek to make sure that is the outcome."

She said she was "surprised" that the force was "still perpetuating this defensiveness", despite issuing an apology for police failures in 2012, more than a year before the inquests began.

Ms Court claimed she was repeatedly told to tell the media what "line" they should be reporting and "my job would be in jeopardy if I didn't".

'Media imbalance'

SYP's chief constable David Crompton was suspended the day after the inquests concluded because there had been an "erosion of trust".

The force investigated some of Ms Court's complaints but a report did not rule in her favour.

It listed areas of Ms Court's work that were said to need improvement.

Among them, she was said to have failed "to proactively redress the obvious imbalance in the media reporting of the inquests to the extent that evidential matters, significant to the force, were not being reported accurately".

A 20-week appraisal, written after Ms Court raised her concerns, also included: "Hayley was asked to encourage the media to report on the positives (as well as accepting that they would report the negatives)."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
SYP Chief Constable David Crompton was suspended after the inquests concluded

'Not substantiated'

In July 2014 Ms Court sent a BBC reporter covering the inquests a text message saying: "Sorry to text late - is there going to be any mention of the new evidence which came to light from SYP on the BBC at some point tonight?"

It was sent at 21:28, following a day at court when a SYP barrister had argued CCTV footage appeared to show supporters forcing open perimeter gates in Leppings Lane.

Ms Court now says she is "embarrassed" to have sent the message.

SYP was asked to respond to Ms Court's allegations about unethical behaviour but it did not provide answers to specific questions.

In a statement, it said it was "aware of the concerns" and would "welcome an opportunity to talk these through" with Ms Court and to "enter a process of independent review and mediation".

It added: "Some of the issues raised have been considered before through the force's grievance procedure. Specifically in relation to the concerns raised about suggested unethical practices, but these were not substantiated at the time.

"However 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."