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The police and the public – why officers and journalists must build better relations

By Simon Neville
21 February 2023

By Simon Neville (ex-practising professional journalist)

The family of Nicola Bulley were scathing in their assessment of the way the media and amateur social network sleuths behaved during the three-week search that would ultimately lead to the discovery of her body.

In a statement read out by Lancashire Police, they singled out Sky News and ITV for condemnation over the broadcasters’ decision to contact them on Sunday shortly after an unidentified body was discovered in the River Wyre.

On Monday, as police confirmed the body was Ms Bulley’s, they said: “We tried last night to take in what we had been told in the day, only to have Sky News and ITV making contact with us directly when we expressly asked for privacy.”

In cases like these, journalists will try and build a rapport with families and encourage them that publicising their case will bring forward witnesses.

In the case of Ms Bulley, her partner Paul Ansell, agreed to their requests, took part in a Channel 5 documentary and briefed the media when he felt the narrative set by the police should be questioned.

But, as happens all too often, the vacuum and demands from editors in London for more details quickly turned any mutual relationship very sour.

The media demanded their fix and the family – the victims – wanted to come to terms with their tragic circumstances in private. Conflict inevitably ensued.

However, the major difference with this tragic story was the role of social media. And it is only going to get worse.

What started as a trickle, soon turned into a flood, as the nation’s keyboard warriors and wannabe TikTok stars stepped away from their basements and ventured into the daylight.

Their presence became so bad, the police had to issue dispersal orders and even arrest some who were searching through gardens in the hope of somehow uncovering “the truth” or, more grimly, a body.

Do not expect the social media companies to step in and regulate it. They will only change their ways when forced to through legislation.

So, what can be done?

As a starter, the police would be wise to look at their relationship with the mainstream media.

Gone are the days where journalists would have weekly tea and biscuits at the local police station with a senior officer to pick through the crime log and ask questions.

Ever since the Leveson Inquiry, police forces have pulled up the drawbridge with relationships managed at an arms-length via civilian press officers.

Perhaps the police could see that the media is the lesser of two evils when another situation like the one in St Michael’s on Wyre arises?

It was not journalists rummaging through garages and gardens. They were not getting arrested or being told to leave the area.

The decimation of regional media has meant those relationships built over several years between local reporters and their community has gone. In its place is social media.

But the last three weeks has shown us all that social media sleuths cannot be held accountable. ITV and Sky News are now subject of an Ofcom investigation and could be fined.

Their actions clearly caused distress to the Bulley family but at least there is some accountability. 

To avoid getting to the stage where regulators must step in, the police need to start having grown up conversations with professional journalists once again.

Information needs to be freely shared off the record or on background – away from the glare of cameras – and trust must be re-established.

Because, without looking at the relationship between the police and the media, the keyboard warriors will continue and future victims will suffer.