- By Emma Stanley and Lynette Horsburgh
- BBC news
Broadcasting regulator Ofcom has said it was “extremely concerned” to hear complaints about ITV and Sky News from the family of Nicola Bulley.
Ofcom said it had written to both “to ask them to explain their actions”.
ITV said it will co-operate fully with Ofcom. Sky News has yet to comment.
Bulley’s family criticized sections of the media and some members of the public for their “absolutely appalling” behavior since she disappeared while walking her dog along the River Wyre in St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire, on January 27.
It is understood Sky News has received Ofcom’s letter and will work closely with the watchdog to answer the questions.
ITV said: “As a responsible broadcaster, we will co-operate fully and respond in detail to Ofcom’s request for information.
“We offer our sincere condolences to the family at this difficult time and will not be commenting further.”
ITV News had believed Mrs Bulley’s family were willing to engage with the media, it is understood, but backed off when a family member refused to speak to them and has not been contacted since.
Former Sunday Telegraph editor Baroness Wheatcroft also responded to Bulley’s family condemnation by some media organisations, including for allegedly not respecting their privacy.
The crossbench peer said there was “every reason for people to be deeply upset”.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Baroness Wheatcroft said the Independent Press Standards Organization (IPSO) must “demonstrate that it really has teeth” and investigate how Bulley’s disappearance was reported.
“I fully agree that the editors in this case do not appear to have behaved as they should and I think it is the opportunity for IPSO to demonstrate that it means business,” she said.
“As a former newspaper editor, I would always hope that my journalists respected the people they were dealing with and in any situation like the Nicola Bulley case, if the family said ‘lay off’ they would certainly have run a mile.”
People had behaved “very badly, not least the public and social media”, she added.
“It’s become the most extraordinary food frenzy.”
Evan Harris, former director of campaign group Hacked Off, said: “There is one big difference between people on social media, which I condemn, and newspapers.
“It’s the editor. These purport to be an edited, curated product, therefore they can be regulated and they should be regulated. It’s hard to regulate a guy in his basement.”
At a meeting of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, SNP MP John Nicholson referred to a news report which he said told of people “literally hunting for clues like tourists in the village”, and included references to people taking selfies on benches. near where Ms Bulley disappeared.
Nicholson suggested that such people “liked the attention and the feeling that they are at the center of a drama” that was “deeply distressing for the family”.
Areeq Chowdhury, head of policy, data and digital technologies at the Royal Society – a fellow of some of the world’s most prominent researchers – told the committee the media frenzy over Bully’s case was “disgusting”.
He said people taking selfies at the scene of her disappearance could have been seeking a sense of “personal validation” or the hope of cashing in on online clicks.
In a statement issued after police confirmed Bulley’s death on Monday, her family said her partner Paul Ansell had been falsely accused of trespassing and her friends and family were “misquoted and vilified”.
They said: “We tried (on Sunday) to take in what we had been told that day, only to have Sky News and ITV contact us directly when we specifically asked for privacy.
“They have again taken it upon themselves to publish stories about us to sell papers and raise their own profiles.
“It is shameful that they have acted this way. Let us be alone now.
“Don’t the press and other media channels and so-called professionals know when to stop? These are our lives and the lives of our children.”
The family said it was “absolutely terrible and cannot happen to another family”.
Former ITN editor-in-chief Stewart Purvis, who has also worked as a senior executive at Ofcom, said: “I think the whole question of how you approach the families of those who have suffered, who are suffering the disappearance and possibly the death of a loved one, is an ongoing topic in the media.”
He said the lack of a public response from ITV or Sky News suggested they were “uncomfortable with the position they are in”.
“I’m sure they don’t want to get into a public row with the family, but if they had a proper defense for this situation, I think we would have heard it from them by now, and I’m sure they’re” united in a group at the moment trying to figure out what to say,” he added.
Dominic Ponsford, editor-in-chief of media trade website Press Gazette, told BBC Radio 5 Live that there had been research into media approaches to families following the death of a loved one.
“Families have said it’s much worse if a terrible case like this is ignored by the media,” he said.
“Sometimes unexplained or sudden deaths are ignored by the media for whatever reason and that can be very difficult for a family.
“And what can also be very difficult is when reporters don’t approach them and try to get information from social media and get it wrong, which can also be very, very difficult for families.”
Internal police investigation
Meanwhile, Downing Street said it expected Lancashire Police to be “transparent” about its internal investigation into how it handled the case.
The force was criticized for revealing some aspects of her private life during the investigation.
Zoe Billingham, former Chief Inspector of Her Majesty’s Police, said people may be “more afraid to come forward to report their loved ones missing” after the “gross invasion of privacy” suffered by Bulley and her family.
Billingham, who independently reviewed police forces in his previous role, said: “It’s certainly not my job to judge Lancashire Police, but what I will say is that what we’ve seen over the last few days is a gross breach of privacy.
“And my message to women out there would be that if your loved one, if your mother or your sister went missing, what we’ve seen in the last few days is not OK; it’s not what we would normally see in a missing person investigation.”
Asked if Rishi Sunak believed an independent, external review would be necessary, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “Our position is to allow the existing process to report back.
“We expect them to detail their findings, and then of course we will consider the next steps as appropriate.”
The investigation into Bulley’s disappearance has attracted widespread speculation, with internet conspiracy theories.
Members of the public even visited St Michael’s on Wyre to carry out their own searches, some of which were posted on social media, including TikTok.
Mr Ansell became the focus of criticism, with some falsely accusing him of involvement in her disappearance.