Nicola Bulley died from drowning, inquest told
Lancashire police have been criticised in an independent review into the force’s handling of the disappearance of Nicola Bulley released this morning.
The disclosure of personal information about the missing mother’s health struggles was “avoidable and unnecessary”, the review led by the College of Policing has found.
Ms Bulley drowned after accidentally falling into cold water, an inquest ruled in June. The 45-year-old had vanished after dropping off her daughters, six and nine, at school and taking her usual dog walk along the River Wyre in St Michael’s, Lancashire, on 27 January.
The search for Ms Bulley and the subsequent police investigation received nationwide coverage with huge interest on social media.
The force faced heavy criticism over its disclosure of Ms Bulley’s personal information, such as that she had “alcohol issues” and had been going through the menopause, with even the Prime Minister expressing concern.
The 143-page report, which concludes with 17 recommendations, found that in policing terms the missing persons investigation was well handled, but that the force had lost control of the public narrative at an early stage.
‘Police must address damaging assumptions about female victims,’ says Women’s Committee chair
Caroline Nokes, a senior Tory MP who chairs the Women and Equalities Committee, told the Independent: “I am unsurprised at the conclusions drawn in this report. There remain significant and damaging assumptions made about female victims which clearly the police need to address and rapidly.
“Male victims are very seldom subject to this sort of victim blaming and shaming. The impact on Nicola Bulley’s family must have been horrific, having her medical history dragged out and publicised in this way. It’s such terrible double standards and it’s driven by ingrained culture. It has to change.”
Maya Oppenheim, Women’s Correspondent21 November 2023 11:01
Police admit handling of case ‘did significant damage’ to force
Police have admitted their handling of the Nicola Bulley case, in particular their disclosure of personal medical details, “did significant damage to the constabulary at the time”.
Andrew Snowden, police and crime commissioner for Lancashire, and Chief Constable Andy Marsh told reporters on Tuesday that there was “not a complete collapse” in public confidence in the force, but there was “significant damage”.
They therefore stressed the importance of the force learning from the lessons of the report released today into its response to the missing mother.
Tara Cobham21 November 2023 10:56
Disclosure of private medical information ‘not found to be misogynistic’
Police have rejected the suggestion the disclosure of Nicola Bulley’s private health information was sexist or misogynistic.
Speaking at a press conference Andrew Snowden, police and crime commissioner for Lancashire, and Chief Constable Andy Marsh were asked: “Would the same information have been disclosed if Nicola was a man?”
They said the release of the details was “avoidable and unnecessary” but, after considering the question of whether the decision was sexist and misogynist, they said the report found no evidence of this.
When pushed, they said they “did not want to get drawn into that”.
Describing the decision as “very personal and damaging” as well as “very concerning” for the public, they said, “It’s private medical information whether a man or a woman.”
Tara Cobham21 November 2023 10:52
Police ‘dropped ball from first contact with media’
Police have admitted that “the ball was dropped” from the “very first contact with the media” at the initial press conference into Nicola Bulley’s disappearance.
Speaking at a press conference Andrew Snowden, police and crime commissioner for Lancashire, and Chief Constable Andy Marsh were asked: “Would you say the ball was dropped on day one?”
They replied, “It would have been much better if Nicola had been declared a high-risk missing person from the outset,” adding, “From early on, there was lack of clarity around why Nicola was a high-risk missing person.”
He acknowledged that not doing this “probably contributed to the conspiracy theories” that flew around the internet at the time she went missing.
They described police losing control of the narrative on day one, with day one referring to the force’s “very first contact with the media” at the initial press conference.
Tara Cobham21 November 2023 10:45
Review: Police lost control of the media narrative
The review found that the investigating team had background information on Ms Bulley to support its theory she had gone into the river that was not publicly available.
The report states: “The way in which this information was eventually communicated to the public proved to be the most controversial aspect of the investigation.
“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, which was fuelled by several newsworthy elements. These included the apparent mystery of why Nicola had disappeared, leaving behind her dog and leaving her mobile phone still connected to a Microsoft Teams call.
“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. Improved awareness, decision making and oversight from the chief officer team would have proved beneficial, including recognition of the added significance and complexity caused by the media and social media interest.”
Sam Rkaina21 November 2023 10:43
Probe into press coverage of Nicola Bulley case not ruled out, says watchdog
The press watchdog has not ruled out an investigation into newspaper coverage of the disappearance of Nicola Bulley earlier this year.
Her family criticised the role the media played during the probe and accused the press of having “taken it upon themselves to run stories about us to sell papers and increase their own profits”.
The chief executive of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso) said the watchdog is considering the case but not currently planning to launch an editorial standards investigation into some of the coverage.
Charlotte Dewar told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We can conduct editorial standards investigation where there are serious and systemic breaches of the Editors’ Code.
“I think at this point on this issue we aren’t there, but we are very actively looking at it. And, of course, should it be clear that that has transpired then we would take that step.”
Tara Cobham21 November 2023 10:39
Review: Police search itself praised, if not the communication
The report states: “In contrast to the management of communications, the police investigation into Nicola’s disappearance itself was highly professional and was delivered to a very high standard.
“Lancashire Constabulary quickly identified this internally as a ‘high risk’ case and they deployed significant resources, beyond what would normally be anticipated, to find Nicola.
“The investigating team started with a working hypothesis that Nicola Independent external review of Lancashire Constabulary’s operational response to reported missing person Nicola Bulley had gone into the river, while not closing off other options.
“Ultimately, this hypothesis was proved to be correct following a substantial and professional search operation.”
Sam Rkaina21 November 2023 10:35
Review: List of main challenges police faced
The report states that a number of factors had an impact on Lancashire Constabulary’s management of communications during the investigation, including:
- 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
Sam Rkaina21 November 2023 10:29
‘I strongly doubt police would’ve disclosed man’s medical details’
Dr Charlotte Proudman, a family law lawyer who specialises in violence against women, told The Independent: “I strongly doubt the police would have disclosed Nicola Bulley’s private medical details to the entire world if she were a man.
“What was the relevance of sharing her personal struggles with the menopause? It served to depict an image of a fragile woman, which created even more speculation, and encouraged gender-based stereotypes and tropes. I feel for her family who watched the media pick apart details of Nicola Bulley’s life adding more fuel to the fire.”
Maya Oppenheim, Women’s Correspondent21 November 2023 10:27
Review: Publication of Ms Bulley’s personal details ‘most controversial aspect’
The report finds that the release of personal information about Ms Bulley “remains the most controversial aspect of the investigation”.
“The Constabulary missed several opportunities during the investigation to remove or reduce the requirement to disclose further information about Nicola’s vulnerabilities,” it states.
“It should have anticipated that this information would be requested or would come to light from another source. In our view, despite it being lawful, the release of this highly sensitive information by the Constabulary was ultimately avoidable and unnecessary.”
Sam Rkaina21 November 2023 10:26