Disclosure of sensitive personal information in Nicola Bulley case ‘unnecessary’, review finds

The release of “sensitive” personal details by Lancashire Constabulary during its investigation into the disappearance of Nicola Bulley was “was avoidable and unnecessary”, according to an independent review published on Tuesday (November 21).

Nov 21, 2023
By Paul Jacques
Nicola Bulley

The force acknowledged that it was “absolutely right” that this disclosure of personal information has been “subject to such a high level of scrutiny”.

The 45-year-old mother-of-two went missing from St Michael’s on Wyre on January 27. Her body was found more than three weeks later on February 19.

The College of Policing was commissioned by Lancashire’s police and crime commissioner Andrew Snowden to provide insight into the effectiveness of Lancashire Constabulary’s response over the course of the period Nicola Bulley was missing.

The purpose of the review was “not to attribute blame but identify areas of learning”.

The ‘Independent external review of Lancashire Constabulary’s operational response to reported missing person Nicola Bulley’ found the case provided an “unusually challenging set of circumstances” for Lancashire Constabulary.

The investigation generated unprecedented levels of mainstream and social media interest for a missing-from-home case, which turned out to be an accidental death.

Because there was no evidence of a crime and no arrests were made, legal proceedings were not active. The media were therefore free of reporting restrictions, the review said.

Lancashire Constabulary’s press office logged more than 500 media calls and 75,000 inbound social media comments on the Ms Bulley case over a period of around a month.

At the peak of attention from the media, the investigation generated 6,500 news articles globally in a single day. On social media, the BBC estimated that TikTok alone featured videos with the hashtag of Nicola Bulley’s name that had 270 million views in total.

The review noted that 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 review 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,” it added.

“The loss of control over the media narrative by Lancashire Constabulary was, in part, due to the decision-making and leadership of the chief officer team.

“While all the component parts of an effective response were present, they were not fully delivered to the level required. Improved awareness, decision-making and oversight from the chief officer team would have proved beneficial, including recognition of the added significance and complexity caused by the media and social media interest.

“Once control of the media narrative had been lost, Lancashire Constabulary faced an extraordinarily difficult task in regaining it.

“Their attempts to do so eventually led to the unnecessary public disclosure of sensitive personal information about Nicola Bulley, which was widely criticised.”

While the policing search response to recovering Ms Bulley was conducted to “a high standard and drew on national expertise”, the review team identified learnings for the constabulary across its senior leadership and communications.

“Despite the significant scale of coverage regarding the investigation across the media and social media, there appeared to be a lack of recognition of the investigation’s profile and the impact on public confidence in the constabulary,” the review said. “The failure to call the investigation a critical incident, despite meeting the national definition, led to several challenges.

“The release of personal information about Nicola remains the most controversial aspect of the investigation.

“The constabulary missed several opportunities during the investigation to remove or reduce the requirement to disclose further information about Nicola’s vulnerabilities.

“It should have anticipated that this information would be requested or would come to light from another source.

“In our view, despite it being lawful, the release of this highly sensitive information by the constabulary was ultimately avoidable and unnecessary.”

The review team examined more than 350 documents, emails and phone records, interviewed more than 70 key people from Lancashire Constabulary and gained insight from over 30 subject matter experts outside the force, including those from the media.

“While there is substantial learning for the constabulary, there are also findings and recommendations relevant to national policing,” the review 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.

“The impact of social media on policing was illustrated starkly, and the significance for investigations and public confidence must be acknowledged.

“The activity to address both these areas of learning must now be considered closely at a national level, including by the College of Policing.”

Mr Snowden said: “First and foremost I hope today’s report reassures Nicola’s family that Lancashire Constabulary carried out a professional and extensive investigation and despite important learnings highlighted in the report, none of these actions would have changed the outcome of this tragic case.

“This review offers best practice in how high-profile cases can be best investigated and communicated under such spotlight and scrutiny, highlighting the importance of leadership command structures, declaration of critical incidents and resilience within police communications.

“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.

“This was always intended as a learning review and as the public’s voice in policing in Lancashire, I will hold the chief constable to account for producing an action plan against the recommendations in this report, to ensure we are delivering policing that is efficient and effective for the communities we serve.

“Whilst there is learning for Lancashire, the report draws out a significant amount of best practice and recommendations for wider learning to police forces nationally, particularly around the relationship between the police and the media, which needs to be strengthened for everyone’s benefit.

“I would like to thank the College of Policing for their meticulous work in compiling this review, together with the operational and subject matter experts that contributed. I would also like to thank officers and staff within Lancashire Constabulary who worked tirelessly throughout this investigation, and despite the pressures and distractions, remained focussed on finding Nicola.

“This report concludes what has been a long and painful process for Nicola’s friends and family and I would ask that their privacy is respected whilst they to continue to grieve for their loss.”

Lancashire Constabulary said it welcomed the review as an opportunity to highlight any learning and best practice that could be applied locally and nationally and cooperated fully with the review team.

“There are some areas of the operation that have received commendation and have been highlighted as exemplary, including the initial response, investigation, and search operation,” it said.

“The support to the Ms Bulley family by the family liaison officers is also highlighted as exceptional, and the senior investigating officer led the investigation professionally and with noteworthy competence.

“Reassurance to, and engagement with, the community of St Michael’s was also central to our response through our local neighbourhood policing team.

“There are also areas of learning that the constabulary will be reviewing and looking to implement in the future or has already done so.

Deputy Chief Constable Sacha Hatchett, the lead chief officer for organisational learning, standards and conduct, will now be responsible for ensuring that any learning is considered and implemented.

She said: “I thank the college for the time they have dedicated to this review and for the recommendations and best practices they have identified, and to PCC Snowden for his support in identifying the learning from this investigation.

“Whilst the review has been published today, it is important to remember that at the centre of all this is Nikki and her family. They have been our priority throughout and our thoughts remain with them as they continue to deal with the grief of losing the person they loved most dearly.

“We have some of the most experienced staff in policing who put others first and the report reflects their outstanding dedication and professionalism; their focus was on finding Nikki and bringing her home to her family.

“When Nikki went missing, all the evidence pointed to the fact that she had somehow fallen into the river. Whilst the media reporting and social media commentary pointed to other possibilities, the investigation remained focused but always open minded.

“The investigation team’s hypothesis was proven to be right when Nikki was found.

“This was an incredibly tragic case that attracted a huge media and social media 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.

“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. This impact also extended to many residents in the village of St Michaels, many who were targeted and had their businesses affected.

“Any police force could face what we did, and we must draw on the learning nationally.”

Ms Hatchett acknowledged that the release of personal information has been highlighted as a “key area of learning” by the college.

Commenting on this specifically, she said: “It is absolutely right that this has been subject to such a high level of scrutiny. We worked proactively with the Information Commissioner’s Office (IC) immediately after the disclosure was made and they concluded that no action was required against the force.

“The release of the information was lawful, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t recognise the impact that this had. It is incumbent on me to stress that the decision making process was thorough, considered and based on the substantial risk posed at that time in the investigation. We did not, and would never, make this decision lightly.

“We accept the points raised in the review and the considerations about whether a non-reportable press briefing could have impacted on how the mainstream media reported on the case. We were balancing our obligation to the family, maintaining their desire to keep this information private, and whilst a briefing may have had some impact on the mainstream media, it would have done little to deter social media speculation and comment.”

Ms Hatchett said the media handling of the investigation has also attracted “significant commentary” in the report, and it is this area in particular which has generated not only local learning but also national recommendations.

She said: “The speed that this case was picked up in the media and on social media, and how quickly it became national and international focus, meant that incredible pressure and demand was put on our press team and the wider department.

“The report very rightly highlights the significant expertise, commitment, and work ethic of this team and whilst there are points of learning, it’s important to recognise that many police forces would have been overwhelmed by this.

“They were a small team and they worked tirelessly throughout in support of the investigation. With the benefit of hindsight, we should have considered mutual aid more thoroughly at the time.”

The review has also highlighted times when the leadership of the force was not as effective as it could have been.

Ms Hatchett said: “I am disappointed that our staff didn’t feel that they had the support from us that they needed. We were working hard behind the scenes, but that isn’t good enough and we have learned from this.

“As noted in the review, the operational oversight and grip on the investigation and search was evident and beneficial, but there are some areas where we could have done better. We know this and I am committed to ensuring that we adopt this learning immediately.”

The constabulary said it also benefitted from the expertise of many professional organisations, scientists and colleagues from the wider policing family and it is grateful for the support it received.

In conclusion, Ms Hatchett said: “Everything we did during the investigation and search for Nikki was in the hope we could find her alive and well, and to bring her home to her family, who remained at the heart of everything we did.

“Sadly, that was not the outcome, and our thoughts are with them as they continue to grieve.”

Chief Constable Andy Marsh, College of Policing chief executive officer, said: “Throughout our work, we have had Nicola’s family and friends in our thoughts. We can only imagine the pain they will be feeling, coming to terms with their loss and pay tribute to their strength and patience.

“We hope the completion of this review will allow them the space to continue to grieve in peace.

“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.

“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.

“We stand ready to support the constabulary, the police and crime commissioner, and wider policing as we look to implement the important learning from this review.”

National Police Chiefs’ Council chair, Chief Constable Gavin Stephens, said: “My thoughts today remain with Nicola’s family and friends as they continue to come to terms with their loss.

“I welcome the findings of the review, and police chiefs will now work closely with the College of Policing to address the recommendations and ensure that the improvements needed are made across policing, as they extend beyond this particular case.

“All chiefs are committed to learning and improvement, and we will report progress. I hope that others in the media, and users of social media, also reflect on the findings and consider what changes they can make when such tragic circumstances arise.

“Nicola’s family must and will remain at the heart of everything we now do to act on the review’s findings.”

Dr Iain Raphael, review lead, said a professional, trusted, and appropriate working relationship between the police and the media was “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,” said Dr Raphael.

“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.

“I’d like to put on record my thanks to everyone who contributed to the review and pay tribute to those from Lancashire Constabulary. The constabulary welcomed the review team with transparency and candour. Their officers and staff have displayed, and continue to display, a real willingness to learn.”

John Edwards, the Information Commissioner, said: “It’s important that lessons can be learned from this tragic case, particularly around what information can be shared during a fast-paced investigation.

“What should be clear from this report, which we contributed to, is that there are stringent laws protecting how personal information is used and shared in the UK. Police must demonstrate that sharing personal information is proportionate and necessary to protect the public and investigate crime.”

“Our thoughts remain with Nicola Bulley’s family and friends.”

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