Media in the dock over 'carnival of hysteria' surrounding Nicola Bulley
It is imperative that IPSO launches its own inquiry into the press coverage of the disappearance and death of Nicola Bulley.
There have been media frenzies before about missing women — and they usually are about women.
Milly Dowler and Madeleine McCann spring instantly to mind as does the surrounding media scandals.
In the case of Milly Dowler, the scandal centred on tabloid phone hacking, while with Madeline McCann the media ended up with multiple libel actions over what they wrote about the family.
The tragic death of Nicola Bulley appears to top them all as a media and public scandal. The intensity of the traditional media coverage has been compounded by the lack of communication skills of the Lancashire police, the pervasive rise of the social media still the last big crime scandal and even the spread of the true crime genre.
At the heart of the coverage of the disappearance and death of Nicola Bulley lies a never-ending story: to what extent the existing media can be trusted with ordinary lives at moments of crisis.
Many raised an eyebrow or two about the sheer scale of the coverage of what we now suspect, as did the police throughout, that this was a case of a woman accidently slipping to her death in a dangerous river.
There was page after page, much of it pure speculation. Why was there such a concentration of media firepower on this particular missing person when more than 170,000 people go missing every year in the UK, if mostly only for a short time?
‘This cannot happen to another family’
Being an attractive youngish woman with two daughters obviously helped, as did her rural village home with the whiff of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and the sheer mystery of it all.
The fantasy world became all too real for the media with the recovery and identification of Bulley and the bitter attack on the media by her partner Paul Ansell on behalf of her family.
The relevant parts are worth quoting at length, partly because they were not exactly given much prominence in the newspaper accounts of the proceedings which involved little more than oblique references.
There was what was described as “shameful actions” of media outlets and family sadness that one day they would have to explain to Nicola’s daughters “that the press and members of the public accused their dad of wrongdoing, misquoted and vilified friends and family.”
The statement went on: “This is absolutely appalling, they have to be held accountable. This cannot happen to another family. 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.”
The attack is clearly heartfelt.
“They again have taken it upon themselves to run stories about us to sell papers and increase their own profile. It is shameful they have acted in this way. Leave us alone now,” it said.
Finally, the family asked: “Do the press and other media channels and so called professionals not know when to stop. These are our lives and our children’s lives?”
Ofcom and IPSO inquiries
To some extent such a diatribe could have been written by any “civilian” suddenly thrust into the full glare of the media spotlight through chance or tragedy. The allegations are general and it is not clear the extent to which the actions of national newspapers are being mixed up with those driven by social media fantasies, particularly on TikTok.
Sky and ITV are mentioned by name but they are accused of “making contact with us directly.” The nature of that contact might be highly relevant. It is said that Paul Ansell has been in touch with Sky News throughout the three-week nightmare and indeed Sky News quoted Ansell as saying after a then unidentified body had been found: “No words right now, just agony.”
He had also been perfectly happy to sit down with Dan Walker for a 75-minute Channel 5 documentary in which he speculated that someone local might be involved.
However, the attack on the media has changed matters entirely. The allegations have been made and it is massively a question of trust and the media have not helped their case by downplaying or trying to ignore the allegations against them.
What Sky News and ITV did or did not do is a relatively easy matter to resolve and communications regulator Ofcom has already expressed concern and asked for explanations from both broadcasters.
If they have broken Ofcom rules, they will be punished. With newspapers it is a more difficult matter.
The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) largely deals with complaints from interested — or injured — parties. Ansell is perfectly free to take a complaint, although he might not want to in current circumstances.
It is therefore imperative that IPSO launches its own inquiry into the press coverage of the disappearance and death of Nicola Bulley to see if the allegations made against sections of the national press are justified.
Another issue of trust in media
In recent years, apart from those with an axe to grind, IPSO has been little in the headlines, suggesting that on the whole it is a system that is working.
If, however, it does nothing in this case, IPSO will seem weak and the hand of those who want to end independent self-regulation of the press will be greatly strengthened. Leaving the allegations to stand unanswered will damage trust in the national newspaper industry.
One possibility would be to commission a study of overall coverage of the story to see, above all, whether lessons could be learned not least about the often difficult relations between the media and the police.
As Guardian columnist Zoe Williams suggested, all the things that the police left unsaid about the Nicola Bulley case “opened a vacuum which armchair detectives and keyboard warriors piled with conspiracies, speculation and fantasies.”
Former IPSO chairman Sir Alan Moses KC might be an ideal person for such a study but if he was considered too parti pris, despite being a man of independent mind then a media academic of substance with real media experience would surely do.
It may in the end be merely a matter of an unfortunate person who slipped into a river, but for the media, clarity is required. Above all, we need clarity about the extent to which professional journalists, as opposed to social media conspiracy theorists, were involved in what Williams called a “carnival of hysteria.”
Raymond Snoddy is a media consultant, national newspaper columnist and former presenter of NewsWatch on BBC News. He writes for The Media Leader on Wednesdays — read his column here.