Nicola Bulley police review: Everything you need to know about damning report

Nicola Bulley, a mother-of-two, accidentally drowned in the River Wyre in Lancashire on January 27.Nicola Bulley, a mother-of-two, accidentally drowned in the River Wyre in Lancashire on January 27.
Nicola Bulley, a mother-of-two, accidentally drowned in the River Wyre in Lancashire on January 27. | Family handout/Lancashire Police
Nine months after missing mum-of-two Nicola Bulley was found in the River Wyre, a revealing independent review into Lancashire Constabulary's handling of the case has been released with multiple damning criticisms and recommendations.

The report by the College of Policing, which sought not to attribute blame but 'identify areas of learning for the Constabulary and wider policing', includes the examination of more than 350 documents, emails and phone records and interviews with more than 70 key people from Lancashire Constabulary. It also spoke to more than 30 people outside the police, including the media. Nicola's family declined to participate.

The report says, ultimately, more than 200 police officers and staff were involved in the investigation. But it identified a number of issues, including:

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  • Lancashire Constabulary's failure to call a critical incident' was 'misguided.'
  • Crime scene 'should have been cordoned off'
  • Delay in providing family liaison support 'contributed to inability to control media narrative'
  • 'Sense of disbelief and denial' amongst senior police team at scale of media attention
  • The decision to release personal information about Nicola , though lawful, was deemed 'ultimately avoidable and unnecessary'.
  • Diving expert Peter Faulding 'caused unwarranted distress to family' and denied signing NDA - and started digging for a 'body'
  • 'Misleading' answer to press question at media conference by senior police officer
  • Failure to brief media caused an 'information vacuum' which fuelled speculation
  • Lancashire Constabulary's media response given insufficient attention and 'compounded by several errors by the media and engagement team'.
  • Nationally, the wider relationship between police and media is 'fractured' and significance of social media must be acknowledged.

The report summarised the unprecedented nature of the Nicola Bulley case. The media and engagement team logged more than 500 media calls and 75,000 inbound social media comments over a month. At its peak the case generated 6,500 news articles globally in a single day. It reported estimations that TikTok alone featured videos with the hashtag of Nicola Bulley’s name that had 270 million views in total.

The report says a number of factors had an impact on Lancashire Constabulary’s management of communications, including:

  • A global social media frenzy, including amateur ‘detectives’ on the ground in St Michael’s on Wyre posting content to social media channels.
  • A search specialist (Peter Faulding of SGI) involved in the case undertaking independent media activity.
  • Limited co-ordination of police and family media activity.
  • A search process that was lengthened and complicated by tidal flows and difficult river conditions.

Meanwhile, it said: "In contrast to the management of communications, the police investigation into Nicola’s disappearance itself was highly professional. Lancashire Constabulary quickly identified this internally as a ‘high risk’ case and they deployed significant resources, beyond what would normally be anticipated, to find Nicola. The investigating team started with a working hypothesis that Nicola had gone into the river, while not closing off other options. Ultimately, this hypothesis was proved to be correct following a substantial and professional search operation."

The report says that the 'failure to brief the mainstream media' off the record allowed speculation to run unchecked - leading to an 'extraordinary' increase in media and public interest in the case 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.

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It cites a 'loss of control over the media narrative' by Lancashire Constabulary partly due to the decision making and leadership of the chief officer team.

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

Independent external review into Nicola Bulley case

Ultimately, the review found that the decision to release Nicola’s personal information was 'avoidable and unnecessary'

THE INVESTIGATION ITSELF

On Friday January 27, 2023, at 11:01am, Lancashire Constabulary received a 999 emergency call from Paul Ansell, who raised concerns for the welfare and safety of his partner, Nicola Bulley. Mr Ansell had last seen Nicola earlier that morning, preparing to take their two children by car to school. Footage recorded by their house’s video doorbell supported this.

As a report is released on the investigation into the disappearance of Nicola Bulley we take a look back at the events surrounding the mystery that unfolded in January 2023. You can watch 'The Disappearance of Nicola Bulley' documentary on Tuesday November 21 at 8.20pm on Shots! - Freeview channel 276, or alternatively you can watch it on demand now: https://www.shotstv.com/watch/vod/52191147/new-the-disappearance-of-nicola-bulley

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This footage also corroborated the location of Mr Ansell that morning, confirming his continued presence at home. Prior to calling the police, Mr Ansell had been contacted by the school, who informed him that the family dog had been found running loose and distressed by a bench in a field near to the school.

Nicola was known to often walk in this field with her dog, along the River Wyre. Her mobile phone was located on the bench, along with the dog’s harness and lead, which were found lying on the ground between the bench and the riverbank.

The riverbank at this location is short but steep with no footholds or handholds. It was normal for Nicola to remove the harness and lead from the dog after entering the field. As the dog was still unleashed, this gave an indication that Nicola had not been ready to leave the field. Mr Ansell telephoned the police before making his way to the location to retrieve her items and conduct a search.

Following the emergency call at 11.01am, the incident was initially recorded as a ‘call for concern’ by the call handler. However, following a review of the information in this initial telephone call by the district response inspector, it was upgraded within 27 minutes and declared as a ‘high risk’ missing person. This triggered a Constabulary response, undertaking prioritised tasks and actions.

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In this 999 call to the police, Mr Ansell stated that Nicola had been recently: ‘suffering from mental health, had been experiencing the menopause and had been suffering from depression’. He also stated that she had been ‘OK that morning, nothing untoward’ and ‘this is very unlike Nicola, totally out of character’. This was recorded in the initial call log.

By 11.27am a response police car with two officers was deployed to meet with Mr Ansell as first respondents. An officer was also designated as the dedicated missing person search manager. Initially overseen by a local Chief Inspector, resources quickly deployed included HM Coastguard, police dogs, police drone team, Lancashire Fire and Rescue, Bowland Pennine Mounted Rescue, Lancashire Area Search and Rescue, National Police Air Service, Swift Water Team and North West Police underwater search and marine unit, By 2.42pm an underwater thermal camera was also deployed - but no sign of Nicola.

The report says at this point, the working hypothesis was that she was missing due to being ill, injured or falling in the river, but did not discount third party involvement or Nicola voluntarily going missing. This hypothesis was based on

  • Nicola’s last known position
  • The location of the dog harness
  • The position and activity of Nicola’s mobile phone
  • The behaviour of Nicola’s dog
  • Nicola’s medical history
  • The low possibility of an exit by any land routes

FAILING TO CORDON OFF THE CRIME SCENE

The reports details Nicola's last known position at the bend of the river near to the bench was considered the most likely point of her entry into the water - but also the only safe entry point for the dive team. From the outset a decision was made not to secure the bench and vicinity with a police cordon. Nicola's possessions had been removed before police arrived and more than 20 people had been at scene. Forensic examination was deemed of no value.

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The report said 'the scene should have been cordoned off and subject to forensic examination at an early stage.'

FAILING TO CALL A CRITICAL INCIDENT WAS 'MISGUIDED'

It was not until 16 February that Lancashire Constabulary agreed to declare the incident as a critical incident, following media criticism and the subsequent release of Nicola’s personal information. The report said: ' This decision (not to declare earlier) was made despite the clear and significant impact on Nicola’s family and the community, as well as the diminishing public confidence in Lancashire Constabulary.'

It said: 'The decision by the chief officer team not to declare it a critical incident earlier was, in our view, misguided.' It added: 'The declaration on 16 February that this was a critical incident was so late that it was rendered ineffective.'

DELAY IN PROVIDING FAMILY LIAISON

The report said the police decision not to declare a critical incident meant family liaison support was deployed too late, seven days after Nicola's disappearance. As a result the family sought external advice and a family friend to help with broadcast interviews - and this 'contributed to Lancashire Constabulary’s inability to retain or regain control of the media narrative.

A number of the most challenging moments in the investigation involved either family media statements or police media lines that the family were not content with. These included the family media statement on 20 February, and the controversy relating to the release by police of sensitive personal information about Nicola on February 15

Independent external review into Nicola Bulley case

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The report concluded: 'There was a critical need for someone with relevant media training and experience to assist in this family media-handling role.'

ERROR OF JUDGEMENT IN MEDIA RESPONSE

The report found a 'sense of disbelief and denial' among senior leads as to how this type of incident could have grown to such an extent and the lack of recognition led to an 'error of judgement'.

It concluded a more senior officer should have been selected to represent the Constabulary but that the SIO’s (senior investigating officer) performance in the press conference on February 15 was competent. It advised a review of which staff are media trained.

The report said the decision to release personal information of a sensitive nature should only be made at the most senior level. Sufficient chief officer team engagement did not take place.

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MISLEADING STATEMENT AT FIRST PRESS CONFERENCE

The report explained the uniformed superintendent who led the briefing was exposed to a range of questions from the media. It said: ' The superintendent did a good job of briefing the media, apart from one crucial answer they gave.'

Reporter: ‘Are there any other factors with Nicola that may have contributed towards the situation? Was she ill or was she taking any medication or any underlying condition?

Police superintendent: ‘We’ve clearly considered the whole picture but that is not relevant at this time. No, not at all.

The report says: 'This answer was misleading. It was known at this stage that Nicola had some medical issues that would make this investigation ‘high risk’. In fact, the investigation was being conducted very intensively as a result. This led to media speculation.

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DECLINING RELATIONSHIP WITH MEDIA

The report found that a background non-reportable briefing was not given but would have been useful, with one media witness describing them as a 'lost art'. It described the long-term cooling in the relationship between the media and the police service in the decade since the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press - including relationships between senior police officers and national media.

INFORMATION VACUUM

The information behind the investigative team’s working hypothesis was not shared with the public. ' Instead, speculation and opinion from individuals outside of the investigation was widely reported by the media', said the review. This meant that media and social media hypotheses – often that Nicola Bulley was not in the river – drove the narrative for the general public.

BREAKDOWN IN TRUST

The review explains the post-statement press conference on February 20, after Nicola Bulley was tragically found dead, exemplifies the breakdown in trust between the media and police.

This statement, which was read out by a senior police officer, was very critical of the media. Journalists and editors told the review that, in their opinion, the statement had been inspired directly by the police to deflect criticism away from themselves.

Independent external review into Nicola Bulley case

The review concluded 'It was not appropriate for the police spokesperson to deliver criticism of the media on behalf of the family. This created a risk of it being regarded as the view of the police.'

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SOCIAL MEDIA OVERWHELM

The report, while acknowledging the overwhelming demand on the press office during this case, concluded Lancashire Constabulary should have been quicker to recognise the impact of social media interest and negative sentiment on the wider narrative around the case and public confidence in the police.

It recommended the College of Policing should work with forces to acknowledge clearly the differences between mainstream, regulated professional media and social media, including the individual requirements around their treatment by police communicators.

PRESS OFFICE UNDER-STAFFING

The review stated: 'At times, because of pre-planned annual leave among the press office, there were only two trained press officers available to answer media calls directly. This naturally limited the press office’s ability to manage the large volume of incoming requests for information from journalists effectively (500 calls were logged by the press office over the course of the investigation).

It also said the decision by Lancashire Constabulary not to accept help from other police communicators meant that it was unable to respond effectively to media needs and contributed towards the information vacuum that subsequently developed. It also hinted at a reluctance of some media staff to answer the phone to journalists.

For some national media representatives spoken to as part of this review, the limited direct contact by telephone with Lancashire Constabulary was symptomatic of a broader issue with communications between the police and the media following theCOVID-19 pandemic, where there was a reluctance to answer enquiries by phone.

Independent external review into Nicola Bulley case

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RELEASE OF PERSONAL INFORMATION ABOUT NICOLA

Following the appearance of Nicola's partner Paul Ansell on Channel 5 on February 10, police became aware the media was asking questions about a police incident at their home on January 10. This led to negative speculation about Paul and ultimately informed the decision to hold a press conference to rectify any misreporting and mitigate risk to Mr Ansell, details the report. It was considered explaining why Nicola has been graded 'high risk' to add context and eliminate speculation.

The report said this should have been made clear at the outset of the investigation as it would have eliminated views that something suspicious had occurred. 'Lancashire Constabulary did not do enough to counter this narrative sufficiently,' it concludes.

It was only during the press conference on 15 February that Nicola was first referred to as ‘high risk’. This was also the first time that her family became aware of the term ‘high risk’ in relation to her. By then, the report said, it was extremely difficult for Lancashire Constabulary to communicate an appropriate level of information about Nicola’s personal circumstances.

At the press conference Nicola's 'vulnerabilities' were mentioned - but despite questions from the media at the end no further information was supplied. It then became a concern that this phrase could refer to domestic abuse and it was decided a further police statement should be made. Legal advice was taken. Reluctantly, the family agreed to a statement to prevent any further stories.

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The report said: 'While the decision to release the most personal information was lawful, in our view it was avoidable and unnecessary.' It continued: 'This was a highly emotional and challenging situation, and Nicola’s family should have been provided with more time, support and media expertise to secure their input.

The family was extremely upset about the prospect of releasing private information about Nicola, especially the reference to alcohol.

Independent external review into Nicola Bulley case

PETER FAULDING CAUSED 'UNWARRANTED DISTRESS' TO FAMILY

Peter Faulding (founder and chief executive of confined space and forensic search company SGI): Lancashire Constabulary did not make a request to use the services of dive experts SGI, nor was SGI recommended by the NCA as a support to the investigation. Mr Faulding was interviewed by Sky News before he even attended the scene and provided comment on aspects of the scene of Nicola’s disappearance, also stating police equipment was 'low tech' and that Nicola 'was not in the river at all.'

At request of Nicola's family, and after implication that not using him would prompt a negative statement, he attended the scene. The report said: 'Lancashire Constabulary felt it was placed in an unenviable situation, which would lead to a widespread negative perception that the force were not using every opportunity to locate Nicola.'

The report cites an email to him from police which read 'I cannot stress the need for discretion enough due to the massive news coverage this enquiry has and continues to attract.’ Police say Mr Faulding signed an NDA agreement - he denies this. Mr Faulding continued to engage with the media, says the report.

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Police also refused his request for a photo opp with a senior police officer at the scene, says the report. Mr Faulding was also caught digging with a spade in woodland near the river without permission. He also informed the family he had identified a body deposition site.

'As part of this review, Lancashire Constabulary suggested that this had caused unwarranted distress and false alarm. Lancashire Constabulary also stated that the activity of Mr Faulding resulted in the diversion of police resources to the family to remedy the situation.'

The report adds: '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.

Mr Faulding also provided sonar images, some of which he say indicated a body, but these were all searched by divers with negative result.

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Mr Faulding provided information to the review. His view was that he had no official information in his possession to disclose to the media. He explained that he provided press statements and interviews because he was ‘hounded’ by the media.

The report concluded: 'If they are not already doing so, forces should seek to use legally enforceable NDAs when they are engaging experts, advisors or other contractors and confidentiality of information is required.'

Lancashire Police Internal systems (Connect) struggled to keep up with a case of this nature - causing delays and distraction.

LACK OF COMMUNICATION