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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Margaret Davis

Review criticises police for disclosure of Nicola Bulley’s health struggles

PA Media

Police have been criticised for revealing Nicola Bulley’s health struggles in a review of the police handling of her disappearance.

Lancashire Police’s disclosure of personal information about the missing mother's struggles with alcohol and menopause was "avoidable and unnecessary", the report led by the College of Policing has found.

The force came under fire for 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.

A coroner found Nicola Bulley drowned after accidentally falling into cold water
— (PA Media)

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 27 January.

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 says 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.

A major search for Ms Bulley saw specialist diving teams scan the river, with police heading all the way out to Morecambe Bay to investigate the possibility her body had been swept out to sea
— (PA Wire)

The 143-page report, 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.

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.

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
— (PA)

Chief Constable Andy Marsh, who leads the College of Policing, said: "Throughout our work we have had Nicola's family and friends in our thoughts.

"The purpose of the review was not to attribute blame but identify areas of learning for the constabulary and wider policing.

"The decision to not call the investigation a critical incident, despite it meeting the national definition, set the tone within the constabulary and led to several challenges.

"The most notable of these was the way the constabulary released personal information about Nicola which was avoidable and unnecessary.

"While we have not shied away from criticism, there are also many areas of Lancashire Constabulary's response that should be commended, including an exemplary investigation and a well-conducted search.

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 27 January
— (PA Media)

"At the heart of the investigation was Nicola. I am left in no doubt that she and her family were foremost in the minds of officers and staff throughout the search."

The report is the last to be released of the three investigations by separate bodies into Lancashire Constabulary’s handling of the case after coming under heavy criticism.

Details of Ms Bulley's health struggles were disclosed by police after bungled handling of questions over whether any medical factors were at play.

Officers revealed on 15 February that Ms Bulley had “alcohol issues” and had been going through menopause, a disclosure that faced public backlash, with claims it was inappropriate to share such private details. The home secretary, among others, called on the force to explain why they had shared the missing woman’s personal information.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), a public body that considers information rights, launched an investigation into the force days later.

Lancashire Constabulary said the ICO concluded no enforcement action was needed, though a separate independent review launched on Tuesday by the College of Policing will also consider the disclosure.

Separately, an investigation by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) into a Lancashire officer’s contact with Ms Bulley prior to her disappearance found no misconduct but advised the force on guidance and the officer on body-worn camera protocol.

The latest review released on Tuesday 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 investigating team had background information on Nicola that was not publicly available.

"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."

It said that the relationship between police and accredited media has become fractured and must be rebuilt.

Dr Iain Raphael, who led the review, said: "A professional, trusted, and appropriate working relationship between the police and the media is vital for public confidence.

"The report makes clear that without this, speculation can run unchecked and result in an extraordinary explosion of media and public interest in the case.

"Policing must also recognise the impact social media now has.

"Ultimately, police should seek to be the first with the truth and ensure the public has access to accurate and authoritative information when it is most needed."

Deputy Chief Constable Sacha Hatchett from Lancashire Police said: "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."

A press conference to discuss the report will be held on Tuesday with Andrew Snowden, police and crime commissioner for Lancashire, who commissioned the report, alongside Chief Constable Andy Marsh.

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