Georgia L Gilholy is a Young Voices UK contributor.
The anti-expression hysteria – calls for clampdowns on media coverage and internet use from public figures, pressure groups and politicians – that has emerged amidst the tragic Nicola Bulley case is alarming
As Sean O’Neill explained in the Times earlier this week, the role of a reporter covering “crime in action”, especially such a sensitive case as that of a missing mother to young children, is invasive by default.
The press must walk a thin moral and regulatory line while attempting to report on events, ask uncomfortable questions, and speak truth to power when it comes to unsolved investigations.
Of course, there have been missteps, and such high-publicity cases often risk turning into media circuses.
But Ofcom has published guidelines to probe and penalise broadcasters who breach rules, while press regulators such as IPSO and IMPRESS can deal with print outlets that genuinely publish falsehoods or intrude into grief.
I have yet to come across a news article by a mainstream outlet that would be in breach of these rules, for example by directing unsubstantiated allegations toward any individuals regarding Bulley’s disappearance.
If such coverage exists, it may well do it is unlikely the media outlets in question will emerge with their images (and bank accounts) unscathed.
The media performs a vital role in covering missing person cases, and the knee-jerk tactics of campaigns such as HackedOff to relaunch a Leveson-style inquiry every time they perceive media to have misjudged something is neither healthy nor helpful.
Conversely, when cases receive scant media attention, members of the public are often aghast, and rightly so.
As Dominic Ponsford, editor-in-chief of the Press Gazette, told the BBC earlier this week: “Sometimes unexplained or abrupt deaths are ignored by the media for whatever reason and that can be very hard for a family.”
Indeed, press attention helps keep ongoing cases in the public’s mind, making it more likely that leads are uncovered and critical memories jogged.
The police have also (in my view irresponsibly) appeared to endorse the idea that accredited news outlets and masses of social media content, from TikTok clips to Facebook posts, are equivalent, suggesting that the former were responsible for vilifying certain family members.
Calls for clamping down social media users pushing rogue theories also creates the impression that authorities universally know better than the public, and that public discussion is by default damaging.
This approach to expression, which seems to have led YouTube, TikTok and other sites to flag reams of content, simply risks breeding yet more suspicion.
Obviously most of us do not possess the skills of seasoned police officers and detectives when it comes to solving crimes. But this should not mean people are barred from discussing their opinions, however far-fetched we might feel they are.
Moreover, Lancashire Police’s tone reeks of deflection at a time when it now faces tough questions about its handling of the case, now subject of an independent review by the College of Policing.
The force’s move to inform the public of their theory that Bulley had not left the immediate area around the Wyre river, while refusing to cordon off the said area, seems misguided given the known voyeurism of certain members of the public. Officers then responded to online speculation by releasing personal details about Bulley’s health, which appeared rather distasteful.
Police should avoid delving into a blame game with the media, in which they hint that TikTok sleuths who rocked up at St Michael’s on Wyre to take selfies and vlog themselves digging holes are equivalent to reporters visiting the area to ask questions and serve the public interest by covering sensitive events.
At the same time, reporters of all stripes should always seek to avoid sensationalism. A less combative approach between the authorities and editors, wherein they can discuss what is newsworthy and helpful, would surely improve the handling of such difficult and highly-publicised cases