The report into the high-profile case surrounding Nicola Bulley’s disappearance has concluded that Lancashire Police’s media handling of the case led to “a breakdown of public confidence.”
The report also concluded that the release of “highly sensitive” personal information by police was “avoidable and unnecessary.”
Bulley went missing in Lancashire, prompting a huge search and a social media free-for-all marked by a slew of “amateur detectives” taking to the area to chronicle their own searches for the missing woman.
The review found that the force’s failure to adequately brief the media on Bulley’s vulnerabilities at an early stage of the investigation allowed speculation in the press and on social media to run unchecked.
Sky News and ITV were both contacted by Ofcom for their coverage of the case, while local news publishers also attracted criticism for their handling of events.
Bulley’s body was eventually found three weeks after she disappeared in the River Wyre, with a coroner later finding she had fallen into the river accidentally.
Lancashire Police was criticised for revealing Bulley had been struggling with the menopause and alcohol issues during the investigation.
Lancashire’s police and crime commissioner Andrew Snowden commissioned the College of Policing to review the case, and the force said it had accepted the findings.
Snowden 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.”
Snowden added he would now “hold the chief constable to account for producing an action plan against the recommendations” and will stage an “extraordinary accountability board” in January with the force.
The Society of Editors, which submitted evidence to the review, is now calling for changes to guidance requiring forces to routinely consider giving background briefings to accredited journalists during high-profile and fast-moving investigations.