When Nicola Bulley disappeared the police struggled to control the narrative around the investigation and people descended on the small Lancashire village where she went missing.
“I’m acutely aware that there continues to be extensive media interest, commentary, speculation and indeed some criticism of our police investigation.”Peter Lawson, Assistant Chief Constable, Lancashire Police
On Friday 27th January, Nicola Bulley went missing after dropping her two daughters off at school.
“Since that time we have done an unprecedented amount of work on the investigation to try and find her.”Peter Lawson, Assistant Chief Constable, Lancashire Police
She was last seen walking her dog by the River Wyre in Lancashire while on a work call.
Shortly after that sighting, a man walking his dog found Nicola Bulley’s dog and phone on a bench nearby. The phone was still connected to the work call.
The following day, Lancashire police launched a major missing persons operation.
“Our main working hypothesis therefore, is that Nicola has sadly fallen into the river, that there is no third party or criminal involvement, and that this is not suspicious.”Superintendent Sally Riley, Lancashire Police
But for a number of days, the media had little new information to report.
“Nicola Bulley who’s 45, vanished a week ago in St Michael’s on Wrye in Lancashire. Extensive police searches are continuing but no trace of her has been found.”BBC News
It created a vacuum into which misinformation and conspiracy theories spread as speculation grew
A toxic brew of social media and the finale of the crime drama Happy Valley likely fuelled this fire.
Armchair detectives were unsatisfied with the lack of progress from the police. Some of them travelled to the River Wrye to search for Nicola Bulley.
Lancashire Police faced intense pressure as a result of the public scrutiny.
“Much of the messaging that Lancashire Police have put out has been utterly shambolic, and appalling, and it’s fuelled speculation when they’ve tried to tell us to stop speculating and it’s made a very difficult situation even more difficult for themselves.”GB News
The force’s media strategy was heavily criticised by the Home Secretary among others and for three weeks, the search for Nicola Bulley dominated headlines.
That was until Sunday when, after a 23-day search, a body was found in some reeds.
On Monday afternoon, Lancashire police confirmed they had found Nicola Bulley.
So, how did the investigation go so badly?
“Hiya guys, exploring with Danny coming back at you… tonight I am at a place up in Lincolnshire where a middle-aged woman has gone missing.”Dan Duffy, YouTuber
This is YouTuber Dan Duffy…
“As you can see there’s police tape up, there’s leaflets of the woman all over the neighbourhood, it is a small village by the way, very very small village.”Dan Duffy, YouTuber
After Nicola Bulley went missing, YouTubers and TikTokers like Dan Duffy descended on St Michael’s to try to solve the disappearance after the police failed to secure the scene.
They believed the police were only focused on the river and should have been looking elsewhere.
Here’s one YouTuber digging up some nearby woodland…
“I’ve just come back to see if the police have been, because all the viewers are saying dig it up…”YouTuber
Local residents said these wannabe detectives were trespassing through gardens, filming properties, and peering through residents’ windows.
Malicious messages were sent to parish councillors about the case, while self-proclaimed psychics shared baseless theories about what had happened.
“I would say the majority of the people who actually come here are not from the locality whatsoever, they’re from miles away…”Private security guard speaking to TalkTV
The level of attention in the village led locals to become so concerned that they hired a private security firm to patrol the area.
“There were a lot of scared residents, they reached out to us and said basically they were frightened, they didn’t know what to do, they thought they’d been let down by the police, that there wasn’t enough police presence in the area… we’ve probably dealt with 20 or 30 people in total and when we’ve approached them they’ve realised that they… this is where they shouldn’t be and they have moved on.”Private security guard speaking to TalkTV
Lancashire Police also issued a dispersal order, granting the force extra powers to keep people away from the area, and warned amateur detectives not to “take the law into their own hands”.
Then the police gave the media a new newsline.
Two and a half weeks after Nicola Bulley went missing, police told the media she was “vulnerable” and a “high risk” missing person due to “some significant issues with alcohol” brought on by the menopause.
The release of such private information by the police sparked both outrage and concern.
Home Secretary, Suella Braverman demanded an explanation from Lancashire Police. The force announced it would conduct an internal review into its investigation.
“Well I agree with the Home Secretary in [that] like her I was concerned that that private information was put into the public domain, and I’m pleased that the police are looking at how that happened in the investigation.”Prime Minister Rishi Sunak
Nicola Bulley’s family had agreed for this information to be released… on the basis of growing public speculation and the threat of people selling stories about her.
But trust in the police is already low and the unusual step to release this information only added to the growing public anger about the way in which the police deal with violence against women and girls.
What’s clear is that Lancashire police struggled to adapt to the changing online landscape.
Other forces around the country will be taking note to ensure they don’t make the same mistakes.
The media are at fault too, and were called out by Nicola Bulley’s family in a statement…
“They again have taken it upon themselves to run stories about us, to sell papers and increase their own profits. It is shameful they have acted in this way, leave us alone now. Do the press and other media channels and so-called professionals not know when to stop?”Detective Chief Superintendent, Pauline Stables, reads a statement on behalf of Nicola Bulley’s family
In all of this though, Nicola Bulley was a mother, wife, daughter and sister.
“She was the one who made our lives so special, and nothing will cast a shadow over that…”Detective Chief Superintendent, Pauline Stables, reads a statement on behalf of Nicola Bulley’s family
And that is how her family will want her to be remembered.
“Nikki, you are no longer a missing person, you have been found. We can let you rest now.”Detective Chief Superintendent, Pauline Stables, reads a statement on behalf of Nicola Bulley’s family
This episode was written and mixed by Imy Harper.