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November 21, 2023

Failings in police-media relations exposed by Nicola Bulley review

Review says non-reportable background briefings could have been used effectively.

By Charlotte Tobitt

The relationship between the media and police must be “rebuilt” after an “information vacuum” led to “speculation and opinion” about the disappearance of Nicola Bulley being reported, a review has found.

The independent external review of Lancashire Constabulary’s investigation after Bulley was reported missing found a number of communications failings that directly influenced how the story was reported – with more than 6,500 stories a day at its peak.

One local journalist told the review the lack of information provided by the force about its working hypothesis on what had happened allowed the narrative to “spiral out of control”.

Journalists also accused the police press office of “orchestrating” a statement by the family after Bulley’s body was found that attacked the media, singling out ITV and Sky News, although the review was told only family liaison officers from the police were present or involved when it was written.

[Read more: Villains of Nicola Bulley media coverage were on social media, but press has lessons to learn]

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Bulley went missing while walking her dog in the village of St Michael’s on Wyre in Lancashire on 27 January and her body was found in the River Wyre just over three weeks later.

During that time there was massive speculation in the media and on social media about what had happened, with conspiracy theories taking root and Bulley’s partner Paul Ansell being “vilified”.

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Nicola Bulley speculation in media ‘drove the narrative’

Non-reportable briefings on the background of Bulley’s vulnerabilities, the fact she was a “high-risk” missing person and the other reasons for its initial hypothesis, later proven correct, that she had accidentally fallen into the river could have made a difference on the reporting of the investigation, the review found.

It said this meant speculation and opinion from people outside the investigation was instead widely reported by the media, and as a result their less informed hypotheses – including that Bulley was not in the river – “drove the narrative for the general public”.

Examples given by the new report included these news and comment headlines:

One local journalist said: “Updates were infrequent and sporadic. There was an information vacuum. Once it was clear how big the story was becoming, Lancashire Police should have been sending out daily updates or holding more regular briefings.

“From my perspective, Lancashire Police were not proactive in controlling the narrative of the story and it was allowed to spiral out of control.”

The review concluded: “Lancashire Constabulary should have recognised that the absence of regular updates on the progress of the investigation created a vacuum for both mainstream and social media to fill, in which conspiracy theories thrived and negative sentiment grew.”

Nicola Bulley. Picture: Family handout/PA Wire
Nicola Bulley. Picture: Family handout/PA Wire

‘At no time did the mainstream media accuse Paul Ansell of wrongdoing’

This led to a family statement, released the day after Bulley was found, which criticised the press and members of the public who, they said, “accused [Ansell] of wrongdoing, misquoted and vilified friends and family”.

This led to fury from journalists, with some telling the review they believed the statement had been “inspired directly by the police to deflect criticism away from themselves” and that it unfairly conflated the actions of accredited journalists and media outlets with members of the public on social media.

One national journalist said: “The Lancashire press office should not have allowed the final family media statement to go out without pushback on the line that media reported false claims about Paul Ansell. At no time did the mainstream media accuse Paul Ansell of wrongdoing, as that would have been libellous, and that the press office have allowed information to go into the public domain which they know is false.”

The review heard that no senior officers and no-one from the Lancashire Constabulary press office were involved in writing the statement although it was reviewed before it was made public. But it found that this lack of involvement “was itself an omission.

“Someone with media expertise should have reviewed the statement and suggested a correction to the misleading line that failed to draw a distinction between mainstream media and social media.”

Of the statement’s criticism of ITV and Sky News – saying they had made “contact with us directly when we expressly asked for privacy” – the review noted the family “was especially angry at the time at the actions of a small number of journalists, who had contacted them directly after Nicola had been found”.

It said families and members of the public have the “absolute right” to comment on an investigation and the circumstances around it as they choose, but that if police give support to such a statement it should be delivered by someone with experience of dealing with the media.

The review also found it was “not appropriate” for a police spokesperson to have read out the statement criticising the media on the family’s behalf: “This created a risk of it being regarded as the view of the police.”

The review noted that all journalists and media outlets respected the wishes of Bulley’s family, delivered via press regulator IPSO, to stay away from her funeral or publish further coverage.

Background briefings a ‘lost art’

All the national media journalists that spoke to the review suggested that having a non-reportable briefing at an early stage with the full background on the case would have “set context for the story and would have headed off much of the speculative reporting that ensued”.

This matches what Rebecca Camber, Daily Mail crime and security editor and chair of the Crime Reporters’ Association, told the Police Superintendents’ Association in September. She said that if officers had “told reporters at the start that there were welfare concerns in a clearly defined, non-reportable briefing, her disappearance would have been reported differently and details of her personal problems might have never come out”.

One local title told the review they had learned the full background from their own sources in the community but chose not to run it without official police confirmation, choosing instead to let it frame how it responsibly reported the story.

A senior police communicator told the review: “I do think background briefings are a lost art. There is absolutely a role for background briefings but I think the Leveson Inquiry has made people incredibly nervous of them. There’s a real nervousness both from officers and comms teams about doing them.”

Lancashire Constabulary’s media and engagement team said they sometimes use non-reportable briefings but they are no longer common practice and operational officers are reluctant to use them. Such a briefing was as a result not actively considered in the Bulley case.

This is despite the College of Policing’s guidance, which states: “Non-reportable information is provided to the media on the basis (by prior agreement) that it is for guidance only and not for publication or broadcast. It can be used to provide further context around a statement. This enables the police to have a dialogue with the media about serious or sensitive policing issues without generating publicity about them. Properly used, this may be a valuable resource in the context of an established, trusting and professional relationship.”

Both media representatives and police communications professionals told the review there has been a “long-term cooling” in the relationship between the media and police in the decade since the Leveson Inquiry recommended that officers should make a note of all contact with journalists, and since Operation Elveden investigated payments by journalists to public officials including police officers.

The review recommended that the College of Policing and National Police Chiefs’ Council “should consider how confidence between the police service and the media can be rebuilt, so that, for example, appropriate non-reportable media briefings are actively encouraged where there is a policing purpose.

“This process will require a balanced and engaged approach from both policing and the media.”

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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