Lancashire Constabulary has come under fire for going public with details of the 45-year-old mother of two’s “significant issues with alcohol” and struggles with the menopause.
A scathing review into the force’s handling of the case described the decision to release the highly personal information as “avoidable and unnecessary”.
Instead, it was suggested, senior officers should have provided the information to accredited journalists from mainstream media organisations on an off-the-record basis.
The failure to do this led to an “information vacuum” that was filled on social media with wild, unchecked and hurtful conspiracy theories, it was found.
Bulley, who had two daughters aged six and nine, vanished on Jan 27 while walking her dog next to the River Wyre in Lancashire.
Initial searches of the tidal, fast flowing river failed to locate her body, leading to speculation that something sinister may have happened.
Her body was discovered three weeks later around a mile downstream, with a coroner subsequently concluding she had fallen into freezing water accidentally.
The role of Peter Faulding, the independent underwater search expert, brought in by the family, also came in for criticism, with the report’s authors accusing him of behaving insensitively and making the job more challenging.
The report, which was commissioned by Andrew Snowden, the police and crime commissioner for Lancashire and published in conjunction with the College of Policing, pinpointed the failure of senior officers to be honest and transparent with accredited journalists in the early days of the investigation as one of the fundamental failings.
At the first press conference on Feb 3, three days after Bulley was reported missing, the superintendent in charge was asked if there were any underlying health conditions that might have contributed to her disappearance.
The officer replied: “We’ve clearly considered the whole picture but that is not relevant at this time. No, not at all.”
The review stated: “This answer was misleading. It was known at this stage that Nicola had some medical issues that would make this investigation ‘high risk’.”
It went on: “This was the point at which the media narrative began to stray from what the police were saying, and speculation started to take over.”
As a result of the rumours appearing on social media, Lancashire police decided to issue a statement on Feb 15 detailing Bulley’s personal health conditions.
Speaking at the time, Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, expressed concern about the fact private information had been put into the public domain.
The review found that the “fractured” relationship between police forces and the media, that has existed since the Leveson Inquiry more than a decade ago, means officers are often unwilling to take journalists into their confidence with sensitive information.
It concluded that the failure to brief the mainstream media on a non-reportable basis around Bulley’s private health issues had “allowed speculation to run unchecked”.
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.”
Lancashire Constabulary also came in for criticism over the delay in declaring Bulley’s disappearance a “critical incident”, which meant family liaison officers (FLOs) were not deployed for a week after she went missing.
Chief Constable Andy Marsh, from the College of Policing, said: “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.”
Responding to the report, Deputy Chief Constable Sacha Hatchett from Lancashire Constabulary, 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.”
Dawn Alford, executive director of the Society of Editors, said: “A successful working relationship between police forces and journalists remains essential to policing legitimacy.
“In order to restore public confidence, the college must now work with the industry to usher in a new era of communication and co-operation which promotes an assumption of trust between officers and journalists as well as more trusted dialogue.”
Bulley’s family said they continue to grieve her loss and do not want to comment on the report.