Disclosure of Nicola Bulley’s health struggles was ‘unnecessary’ – police chiefs

Nicola Bulley went missing in St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire, on January 27 (Family handout/PA)
Nicola Bulley went missing in St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire, on January 27 (Family handout/PA)

The bungled handling of the release of personal information about Nicola Bulley’s health struggles was “avoidable and unnecessary”, and police and media need to rebuild trust, police chiefs have said.

Andrew Snowden, Police and Crime Commissioner of Lancashire Police, said he had “full confidence” in his chief constable, Chris Rowley, as his force came under fire in a report on their handling of the case.

Lancashire Police was criticised over the way it made public details of Ms Bulley’s medical situation amid a media frenzy earlier this year, with even the Prime Minister expressing concern that private information had been disclosed.

The body of Ms Bulley, 45, a mother-of-two, was found in the River Wyre on February 19, about a mile from where she vanished, while walking her dog in St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire, on January 27.

An inquest concluded her death was accidental, that she fell into the river on the day she disappeared and died almost immediately in the cold water.

Ms Bulley’s family say they continue to grieve her loss and do not want to comment on the report.

A review, published on Tuesday, 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.

Senior officers failed to brief mainstream accredited reporters because trust between police and media had broken down – leading to an information vacuum and unchecked speculation.

At a press conference in Preston, Mr Snowden said: “The public rightly had questions about how this became such an international story with often such negative headlines but also with regard to Nicola’s most personal and private details.

“There are clear recommendations in the report around visibility from senior leadership within the organisation and that will form part of the discussions.

“It obviously did do significant damage to the reputation of the constabulary at the time.”

Mr Snowden said he will hold the chief constable to account to implement 17 recommendations.

Nicola Bulley death
Flowers and ribbons on a bridge over the River Wyre in St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire, where Nicola Bulley’s body was found (Dave Nelson/PA)

The 143-page report criticises senior officers at Lancashire Police, details “insufficient focus” and errors of judgment, and questions the culture of the force, with claims chief officers “observed but did not act” and failed to show sufficient support to lower ranks.

A huge level of interest coupled with wild speculation on social media put the force under intense pressure during the investigation into Ms Bulley’s disappearance.

The frenzy of speculation saw 6,500 international articles written about the hunt in the space of one day, and TikTok videos with the hashtag of her name had 270 million views.

Lancashire Police press office logged more than 500 media calls and 75,000 inbound social media comments on the case in about one month.

A review of the investigation led by the College of Policing found that as levels of public confidence in the force were falling, the case should have been declared a critical incident, due to the effect of public confidence in the police, with greater focus on the media and earlier use of family liaison officers.

Chief Constable Andy Marsh, who leads the College of Policing, also speaking at the press conference, said the review was not to apportion blame but to learn lessons.

But he said the Bulley investigation had shone a spotlight on how the police and media operate which had relevance to all police forces with senior officers having “more work to do” to rebuild trust.

He said: “The review found the wider relationship between the police and the media to be fractured and identified that action needs to be taken on all sides to help build trust.

“I do believe that the police should have openness, candour, honesty as a basis for their accountability and their professionalism.”

Details of Ms Bulley’s struggles with the menopause were disclosed by police after bungled handling of questions over whether any medical factors were at play.

The review found that Lancashire Police should have given non-reportable background briefings to accredited journalists to shape responsible reporting, without releasing personal information.

It said: “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.”

Dawn Alford, executive director of the Society of Editors said: “The College of Policing’s review rightly recognises that urgent action is needed to reset and rebuild the relationship between the police and the media which, for too long, has been mired by wrongful perceptions and mistrust.”

Rebecca Camber, chairwoman of the Crime Reporters Association, added: “This is a watershed moment for policing.

“To inform the public about the work of policing, a successful working relationship between the police service and the media is crucial.

“It is an opportunity for all forces to rebuild this vital relationship.

“Police must be more open and honest if they are to regain the public’s trust and confidence.”