The independent external review commissioned by Lancashire Police and Crime Commissioner Andrew Snowdon criticised the force’s handling of communications and the media after Nicola Bulley went missing.
A lack of briefing and information from police ‘created a vacuum filled by unchecked speculation’, the report said, and attempts to regain the narrative resulted in criticism by the release of controversial personal information about Nicola.
The report has been published this morning by the College of Policing.
After going missing while walking her dog on January 27, Nicola’s body was found a mile away in the River Wyre on February 19, with an inquest ruling her death an accident.
The report’s executive summary states: “The Nicola Bulley case provided an unusually challenging set of circumstances for Lancashire Constabulary.
“The investigation generated unprecedented levels of mainstream and social media interest for a missing-from-home case.”
It listed a number of factors which impacted the management of communications during the investigation:
- a global social media frenzy, including amateur ‘detectives’ on the ground in St Michael’s on Wyre posting content to social media channels
- a search specialist involved in the case undertaking independent media activity
- limited coordination of police and family media activity
- a search process that was lengthened and complicated by tidal flows and difficult river conditions.
The report said in contract to the press team, the police investigation was “highly professional and delivered to a very high standard”.
The working hypothesis involved information not publicly available, and which was not shared publicly until it was too late and the narrative had been lost.
The report goes on: “The failure to brief the mainstream media on a non-reportable basis on this information, or to adequately fill the information vacuum, allowed speculation to run unchecked.
“This led to an extraordinary increase in media and public interest in the case.
“The loss of control over the media narrative by Lancashire Constabulary was, in part, due to the decision making and leadership of the chief officer team.
“While all the component parts of an effective response were present, they were not fully delivered to the level required.
“Once control of the media narrative had been lost, Lancashire Constabulary faced an extraordinarily difficult task in regaining it.
“Their attempts to do so eventually led to the unnecessary public disclosure of sensitive personal information about Nicola Bulley, which was widely criticised.
“Ultimately, the review finds that the decision to release Nicola’s personal information was avoidable and unnecessary.”
The report added while the investigation was well-handled and resources, not declaring it a critical incident – when the force was being criticised – had a negative impact on aspects of the case, including on deploying family liaison officers, decision making, and the person who addressed the media.
Deputy Chief Constable Sacha Hatchett, of Lancashire Police, said: ““When Nikki went missing, all the evidence pointed to the fact that she had somehow fallen into the river.
“Whilst the media reporting and social media commentary pointed to other possibilities, the investigation remained focused but always open minded.
“The investigation team’s hypothesis was proven to be right when Nikki was found.
“This was an incredibly tragic case that attracted a huge media and social media interest, placing our policing response and the Bulley family in the spotlight.
“That media demand was at times overwhelming, and with the benefit of hindsight, there are undoubtedly things we would do differently in the future. Indeed, we have already started to do so.
“There is no doubt that the impact of social media, as experienced in this case, is an area of concern for policing generally which requires more focus in the future.
“It had a detrimental effect on the family, the investigation, and our staff along with influencing wider media reporting. This impact also extended to many residents in the village of St Michaels, many who were targeted and had their businesses affected.
“We accept the points raised in the review and the considerations about whether a non-reportable press briefing could have impacted on how the mainstream media reported on the case.
“We were balancing our obligation to the family, maintaining their desire to keep this information private, and whilst a briefing may have had some impact on the mainstream media, it would have done little to deter social media speculation and comment.
“The speed that this case was picked up in the media and on social media, and how quickly it became national and international focus, meant that incredible pressure and demand was put on our press team and the wider department.
“The report very rightly highlights the significant expertise, commitment, and work ethic of this team and whilst there are points of learning, it’s important to recognise that many police forces would have been overwhelmed by this.
“They were a small team and they worked tirelessly throughout in support of the investigation. With the benefit of hindsight, we should have considered mutual aid more thoroughly at the time.”
Lancashire PCC Mr Snowdon said: “Whilst the investigation into Nicola’s disappearance was found to be well handled and resourced, the media narrative was lost at an early stage, which had a detrimental impact on Nicola’s family and friends, and also the confidence of the wider community.
“Opportunities for non-reportable media briefings on her medical history and vulnerabilities, or sharing her status as a high-risk missing person were not taken.
“This was always intended as a learning review and as the public’s voice in policing in Lancashire, I will hold the Chief Constable to account for producing an action plan against the recommendations in this report, to ensure we are delivering policing that is efficient and effective for the communities we serve.”