The tragic death of Nicola Bulley garnered intense interest and sympathy nationwide. It also highlighted the role played by the police and the media through the intrusion into individuals’ private lives and those of their families.
The encroachment into the private lives of both Nicola Bulley and her family serves as a powerful reminder of the need for editors to act appropriately when reporting distressing events, and for industry regulators to hold broadcasters and publishers accountable where their own standards have not been met. In the search for Nicola, Lancashire Police publicly disclosed private information about her personal struggles. The disclosure of highly sensitive information was widely criticised by the public and media as a gross invasion of Nicola and her family’s privacy which could make others “more fearful of stepping forward to report a loved one,” according to Zoe Billingham, the former Inspector of Constabulary.
However, the press itself has not avoided criticism. Nicola Bulley’s family have made complaints about the media’s reporting of the case, singling out ITV and Sky News and their decision to contact them, despite their appeal for privacy. The UK’s communications regulator, The Office of Communications (Ofcom), has now confirmed it has written to both broadcasters to investigate their actions.
The Ofcom Broadcasting Code requires all broadcasters to avoid the unwarranted infringement of privacy. Further, individuals in a state of distress should not be put under pressure to provide interviews unless it is warranted. Similarly, the Independent Press Standards Organisation’s (IPSO) Editors’ Code of Practice, which applies to newspapers and magazines, requires editors to be able to justify intrusions into any individual’s private life without consent and, in cases involving grief or shock, enquiries must be made with sympathy and discretion. It is understood that both ITV and Sky News are fully cooperating with Ofcom.
The interplay between the media and police in the reporting of alleged criminal acts can also give rise to a privacy claim where an individual’s privacy rights outweigh the right of the press to freedom of expression, for example, as to a report on the identity of an individual under criminal investigation. Automatic reporting restrictions also prevent the press from reporting on the identity of certain victims of crime (including victims of sexual offences) and to do so would amount to a criminal offence.
Where it is found broadcasters and publishers have fallen short of regulatory codes of conduct, the media can be deterred through legal means or claims can be pursued. This should, of course, not be necessary.
Hamlins’ Media Disputes department is one of the largest and most successful Media Disputes teams in the UK and is widely recognised as an advisor of choice for both public and private figures seeking advice in relation to defamation, reputation management, pre-publication libel and privacy law. If you would like to find out more about how Hamlins can help you, please get in touch.