Missing the point?

Did the Lancashire Constabulary get it right?

This blog was originally written before the discovery of a body on the River Wyre over the weekend. Sadly, it seems inevitable that it will turn out to be that of missing mother, Nicola Bulley. In the week prior to this, the British media had gone into one of its periodic feeding frenzies on the subject of Nicola Bulley’s mysterious disappearance.

As the horror continued to unfold, media professionals were giving each other knowing looks as, once again, a communications misjudgement threatened to overshadow the deeply distressing human story at the heart of the matter.

The miscalculated quote in question came from the Lancashire Police who thought it would be a good idea to reveal to a news hungry nation that the missing woman had “sadly, in the past, had significant issues with alcohol…brought on by her struggles with the menopause…”

Menopause. Alcohol. Struggle. Somewhat emotive words at the best of times but a bad miscalculation in this context.

The resulting furore moved the story from being about a missing mum and partner, and fuelled a furious debate about how a public declaration of “a woman’s reproductive status” or issues with alcohol could be of any possible relevance to the case. As well as the question of disclosure of private medical information, it also led to accusations of victim blaming and yet more police incompetence. None of which has helped Nicola Bulley or her family.

If there were any mitigation, it seems that Nicola’s family, while not having given the police express permission to broadcast her personal “issues”, may have felt pressure to do so to stop some scumbags who were about to sell her story to the usual purchasers of such stuff.

The police statement was a clumsy error of judgement and proved a huge distraction. By all accounts, they did what they could, and should, to coordinate a search for the missing woman in a professional manner. Presumably, her “issues” were given to the police in confidence by Nicola’s family early on in the investigation, and she was immediately classified as a vulnerable missing person which escalated the investigation.

The police were also up against it from the start. The small village of St Michael’s where Nicola lives has been besieged by a circus of amateur sleuths, crackpots and rubberneckers intent on finding their few minutes of fame. They created rumours and theories, some of which the police had to follow up, most of which were a time wasting distraction. Even more shocking are the activities of those brave, anonymous keyboard warriors who felt they could write the vilest of things to, and about Ms Bulley’s family – and to the local councillors. So repulsive were some of these posts that criminal proceedings are now ongoing, and the debate has widened once again about what responsibility social media platforms should take for publishing – sorry, distributing – patently hurtful material.

So, now both the Information Commissioner and Home Secretary have asked the Lancashire police to explain exactly why they felt it necessary or appropriate to impart highly confidential information. It was another distraction for a force which should really have been left to concentrate on the matter in hand, namely finding Nicola Bulley. 

There are lessons from this sorry tale for any organisation or advisor caught in middle of a media feeding frenzy. There’s something about holding one’s nerve under intense pressure. The police appeared to panic and felt unduly pressured to justify their primary line of investigation. They of all people could have said that it was not their gift to give out personal details. It was certainly not their place to try and quell the plethora of bonkers speculation about the case.

The episode also serves as a salutary reminder about how important it is for organisations and their advisors to take time to consider very carefully every word uttered in public.

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