‘This isn’t a TV drama’: How Nicola Bulley armchair sleuths are a threat to the police investigation

As red herrings distract detectives, and locals hire security, police fear a concerning new precedent has been set, writes Lizzie Dearden

Saturday 18 February 2023 17:11 GMT
Online myths and conjecture 'distracting' from Nicola Bulley investigation, say police

Nicola Bulley’s disappearance is being treated “as a feast” by armchair detectives and ghoulish commentators who are hampering the investigation, concerned experts have said.

When Lancashire Constabulary made the shocking disclosure of the 45-year-old’s issues with alcohol and menopause symptoms, they said it was necessary to “avoid any further speculation or misinterpretation”.

But the frenzy around the mother-of-two’s unsolved disappearance has only intensified, with the home secretary, Information Commissioner’s Office and police watchdog all stepping into the investigation’s orbit.

For critics of the police, there are many unanswered questions about the investigation as well as the decision to reveal Ms Bulley’s private details.

But in the view of some police officers, an army of “amateur detectives” poring over the case are to blame for investigators having to jump from an information vacuum to what many saw as an unwarranted disclosure of personal information.

Ms Bulley’s case has become the subject of intense focus on both traditional and social media. Videos, blogs, podcasts and countless posts have been feeding an apparently insatiable appetite for developments.

Amateur sleuths dissatisfied with the performance of the police have even taken it upon themselves to travel to the area of the River Wyre where Ms Bulley vanished on 27 January.

Groups have been tracing her potential dog-walking route, conducting their own searches of the river, and even breaking in to empty properties to hunt for clues.

Local residents have resorted to employing an external security company, with Wyre Council leader Michael Vincent saying: “People have reported being sat in their living rooms in an afternoon watching television, and people coming up to the windows, peering in, trying the doors. It’s been terrifying for them.

“These are typically older people extremely scared in their own homes.”

Experts fear that the interference could jeopardise the ongoing police investigation, as well as causing distress to Ms Bulley’s family, and that it is potentially setting a concerning precedent for future high-profile searches.

Mike Pannett, a former police officer who served in the Met and North Yorkshire Police, condemns other former detectives who have “invited themselves into the midst of these awful circumstances for personal gain or validation”.

“I’m talking about a handful of former police officers, who in my opinion have recklessly thrown in completely unfounded and entirely speculative theories that resulted in the press and media seizing upon it,” he adds.

“Quite frankly I’m sickened by it, as are all the other current and serving police professionals I know. This awful tragedy has been treated by some as a feast.”

Mr Pannett fears that the rampant punditry on the case has “made things worse” by adding to the mountain of potential leads and scraps of information that police are required to check – even if they lead nowhere.

Everything we know about Nicola Bulley's disappearance so far

Red herrings that have taken up police time so far include a stained glove, a derelict house and a red van, all of which have been ruled out of the investigation.

Speaking at a combative press conference on Wednesday, lead investigator Detective Superintendent Rebecca Smith said officers had been “inundated with false information, accusations and rumours” relating to the case.

She told journalists that social media video-makers and wannabe detectives had “significantly distracted the investigation”, adding: “In 29 years’ police service I’ve never seen anything like it. Some of it’s been quite shocking and really hurtful to the family.

“Obviously we can’t disregard anything, and we’ve reviewed everything that’s come in, but of course it has distracted us significantly.”

If the case results in a prosecution, there could be further consequences down the line.

Police activity near the bench by the River Wyre in St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire, where Ms Bulley’s mobile phone was found
Police activity near the bench by the River Wyre in St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire, where Ms Bulley’s mobile phone was found (PA)

Nazir Afzal, a former chief crown prosecutor, says that the profile of Ms Bulley’s disappearance means that a future jury would be likely to have seen coverage, making it difficult for a court to find enough people to consider a case dispassionately.

“Armchair sleuths raise expectations that can’t be managed and ultimately impact on justice,” he adds. “For example, prospective jury members expect that certain evidence should be available because of what they’ve read or seen, and if it’s not then they ask why.”

An anonymous senior police officer who investigated another high-profile disappearance says that police can create “dysfunctional public activity” by releasing insufficient information, but also risk “feeding the frenzy” by saying too much.

“It’s a minefield, there’s no way you can do the right thing,” he tells The Independent. “I have a lot of sympathy for [Lancashire Constabulary] ... they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t.”

But Zoe Billingham, who previously worked for HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, fears that the disclosure of claims that Ms Bulley struggled with her use of alcohol while going through the menopause will damage women’s trust in the police further, after a series of horrific crimes committed by officers.

A poster appealing for information about Ms Bulley
A poster appealing for information about Ms Bulley (PA)

“The police have always got to balance the interests of their investigation, and bringing it to a swift conclusion, with the rights of the individual,” she says, arguing that the way Lancashire Police released information may cause people to hesitate to report their female relatives missing.

The former watchdog inspector says police “need to be very clear on what their role is: it’s to conduct an effective investigation, to have the public on their side, to provide sufficient information so that a vacuum isn’t created, but actually say ‘no’ on occasion.”

Ms Billingham believes senior officers should ensure that the public and media understand that “unlimited disclosure” is not possible during live investigations “for very good reasons”.

Mr Pannett says the swarms of people offering up theories have “at best watched too many TV dramas, and at worst are purposely trying to hurt Nicola’s loved ones”.

“I do worry that this will now become the norm, and going forward there’s a fine balance to be struck between casual armchair sleuthing and downright malice,” he adds. “These events aren’t last night’s cliffhanger TV drama – they are real life, and people should respect that.”

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