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Friday, 24th February 2023

The tragic lessons of Nicola's case: why we have to learn to communicate better​




The Nicola Bulley case has shone a light into some of the dark corners of how we communicate around and react to tragedy.

What should remain intensely private matters become public property, driven by traditional media’s innate commercial imperative to get the story first and by its proper role of investigating and exposing matters in the public interest.

But perhaps far more so by the numbers of social media followers whose determination to ‘be in the story’ tipped over into the downright ghoulish by their missions to post selfies on the river banks where Nicola disappeared and to do their own amateur sleuthing for clues around the River Wyre.

Undoubtedly false clues unearthed (or planted) by the vicarious activities of wannabee detectives plus human traffic jams of TikTokers and YouTubers dramatically hindered the police efforts.

So too did the daily bulletins issued by the publicity hungry Peter Faulding, the loose-lipped underwater search expert. He brazenly told information-hungry hacks and Nicola’s family that if she was in the river his team would find her ‘within the hour.’

When they didn’t, he gave multiple interviews a day, telling GB News that ‘none of this rings right to me. My belief is she’s not in the river at all.’ His words heightened now-rampant public interest in the case and undoubtedly distracted the police in terms of the messaging they wanted to communicate, principally to enlist the help of the public by jogging memories of anything which may have been spotted.

Partly as a consequence of these multiple distractions and partly as a result of the execution of their own comms strategy, the Lancashire police’s updates and appeals to the public ranged from the inept to the disastrous.

It remains unclear – and is now the subject of three separate investigations – just what purpose anyone thought would be served in terms of helping the investigation by revealing intensely personal medical and mental health issues which Nicola may have experienced. Would any such equivalent deeply sensitive and medically confidential matters ever have been issued in the case of a missing man?

The circus has moved on, but the damage that this communications fiasco has wrought on a devastated family and 600-small community will surely last forever.

To understand the bungled communications, fake news and narcissistic use of social media which led to this, it is useful to review the unfolding of the story. Therein we can see the implications of the Bulley investigation for the future of how we may want to report, control and relate to information about open cases rooted in heartache, tragedy and loss.

“Undoubtedly false clues unearthed (or planted) by the vicarious activities of wannabee detectives plus human traffic jams of TikTokers and YouTubers dramatically hindered the police efforts.”

In the first weeks of Nicola’s disappearance, the Lancashire constabulary unremittingly publicised its ‘working hypothesis’ that Nicola had fallen in the river, leaking nothing else ‘official’ to journalists for days on end, as is routine in tightening police comms departments following the Leveson Inquiry. This inadvertently created a vacuum which was quickly filled with the lurid theories of armchair detectives and ‘true-crime’ aficionados.

Far away from the scene, millions in pubs and living rooms up and down the country gathered around phones, dissecting the family’s media interviews second-by-second on YouTube and Tiktok for signs of ‘guilty’ body language or facial expressions.

Print, broadcast and online outlets were generally responsible enough not to entertain the wilder theories promoted on social media, but articles on the ‘stained’ ski glove found in a field, or the ‘shabby red van’ seen the day Nicola went missing, played into the hands of the public-gone-detective.

Yet, inevitably – and properly – large swathes of the media still splashed on Nicola’s ‘struggle with menopause and alcohol’  the day after the information was revealed. How could they not have done? The subject had been proactively raised and fully aired at a televised and fully on-record media briefing by Lancashire Police. For their own, inexplicable reasons, the police communications operation had made it the central plank of their media strategy that day.

This ‘car-crash’ media strategy of the Lancashire Police has helped fuel the ‘unprecedented’ public obsession in the Bulley case. Their refusal to explore ‘other theories’ with the press, despite knowing that Nicola was a ‘high-risk person’, gave rise to much of the debacle. Understandably Nicola’s partner, the subject of the inevitable whispering campaign a partner can find himself subjected to when a woman goes missing, had his gripes with the mainstream media. His statement after Nicola was found pulled no punches about the levels of intrusion into his family distress and grief by named mainstream broadcasters.

For all that, the aftermath of this tragic case should not be about collaring and vilifying individual or collective scapegoats. Rather it’s about facing up to what we as individuals and society built around the Bulley case – a toxic, damaging conversation about a human life, and a story of grief, tragedy, recrimination and ultimate irreplaceable loss. It’s about a failure to control a narrative and handle delicate information with the sensitivity, tact and keen attention it demands. It’s about media literacy – our culture’s understanding of how the images on our screens relate to lived experience.

Bad conversations are never totally one-sided. They’re always collaborative. If we can’t communicate better, from public institutions down to social media users, we’ll keep failing innocent people – just as we have all failed Nicola Bulley.