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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Robyn Vinter North of England correspondent

Diver in Nicola Bulley search caused ‘false alarm’ to family, report says

Peter Faulding (right) and workers from his private underwater search and recovery company assist in the search for Nicola Bulley in February 2023
Peter Faulding (right) and workers from his underwater search and recovery company assist in the search for Nicola Bulley in February. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

A professional diver “caused unwarranted distress and false alarm” to the family of Nicola Bulley and diverted resources away from the search for her, police told a review into the handling of their investigation into her disappearance.

Peter Faulding made several statements to the media that were later found to be “at odds” with what had happened to Bulley, causing confusion among the public, according to an independent investigation into the actions of Lancashire police during the search for woman who disappeared in January.

The review, commissioned by the Lancashire police and crime commissioner, Andrew Snowden, found police lost control of the public narrative early on and allowed “external voices” to dominate the search for the 45-year-old mortgage broker.

Though the investigation was “highly professional”, the review also found, it had been “avoidable and unnecessary” to reveal personal information about Bulley’s health struggles.

Bulley’s case attracted widespread attention not long after the 45-year-old went missing on 27 January this year near the River Wyre in rural Lancashire. After a detailed search involving specialist police from numerous forces and other organisations, such as the National Crime Agency and the Environment Agency, her body was found almost a month later on 19 February about a mile downriver from where she was last seen.

Lancashire police were roundly criticised at the time, including by the prime minister, for revealing to the public that Bulley had struggled with alcoholism due to the menopause, as part of efforts to explain their handling of the investigation amid wild public speculation about the case.

This could have been avoided if the force had worked with the media. The report 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.”

The 143-page report released on Tuesday morning, which concludes with 17 recommendations, 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.

The review reported that Faulding and his company Specialist Group International (SGI) had a “significant impact” on the investigation and public confidence in police, according to the constabulary.

The commissioner’s report broadly agreed with these claims, writing his actions “created a more challenging environment for the investigation team” and that “his public statements often contradicted the investigative and operational approach, leading to confusion for the public and reducing the family’s trust in the investigation and search operation”.

It added: “Some social media commentators referred to his comments as evidence for their alternative explanations for Nicola’s disappearance.”

The report cited numerous examples of these comments, including from the GB News website, where Faulding was quoted as saying, “My belief is she’s not in the river at all”, and, “My opinion is had Nicola gone in by that bench she would have gone to the bottom and drifted a couple of metres.” These claims were contrary to what Lancashire police was saying at the time and were proven incorrect when her body was later found.

An inquest into her death earlier this year ruled Bulley had drowned accidentally and was likely to have died minutes after falling into the water. Despite this finding, there is still a great deal of online speculation about the case, with many social media users refusing to believe the official version of events.

Police had been reluctant to agree to the involvement of Faulding, they told the review, and they claimed he broke a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) by talking to the media about the case, though the diver told the review he had never signed one or agreed not to talk to the media.

In response to the report, Hacked Off, the campaign group for press accountability, called for an Independent Press Standards Organisation investigation into what it said was “speculative and ultimately untrue press reports” about Bulley’s disappearance.

In a statement, Faulding said: “I take confidentiality very seriously and would never breach an NDA or disclose any confidential or protectively marked material. The only instructions I was given was to use discretion and keep operational information confidential.

“I was never given any operational information and never disclosed any (ie: location of a significant target). If at any time I was asked to stop updating the media, I would have immediately, but no request was ever made.”

He added: “Failings by the police to control the media left me in a situation where I was swarmed for information.”

The report added: “Lancashire constabulary also shared concerns with the review that Mr Faulding had behaved insensitively towards the family at an extraordinarily difficult time. It was assessed by Lancashire constabulary that he used his conversations with the family to provide quotes to the media, and that he influenced the family into believing that Nicola had not entered the river and that a third party was involved.”

Despite the communications failings, “the police investigation into Nicola’s disappearance itself was highly professional and was delivered to a very high standard”, the report said, adding that the case was identified correctly as “high risk” immediately and significant resources “beyond what would normally be anticipated” were deployed to find her.

Lancashire police welcomed the report. Deputy chief constable Sacha Hatchett said the case had attracted huge 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.”

Bulley’s family said they continued to grieve her loss and did not want to comment on the report.

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