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Nicky Marr: Social media's shame over Nicola Bulley

By Nicky Marr

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Nicola Bulley
Nicola Bulley

What is happening to us?

On January 27, a woman went missing in Lancashire. Weeks later a body was pulled from the river a mile from where she was last seen, and her family was informed. There followed a period of 36 hours of unimaginable anguish for her family until police confirmed the worst possible news. The body was Nicola’s.

But a positive identification isn’t the end of the story for the family. With internal police investigations and press complaints in the pipeline, they’re facing a long, tough time ahead. I hope, in weeks and months to come, they’ll get answers to the questions they’ll have been asking themselves since they last saw her alive.

Nicola Bulley was not just another news story to them. To them she was their partner, their mum, their daughter, their friend.

This is a story that deserved its place in our news cycle. A woman vanishing in broad daylight while she was connected to an online work meeting, was bound to arouse curiosity.

Police were quick – rightly so – to enlist the media’s help in their search to find her. But unless we had a direct connection to Nicola Bulley, were in the area when she disappeared, or held relevant information to assist the official enquiry, what did her disappearance have to do with us?

Beyond empathy and mild curiosity, absolutely nothing. And yet apart from Kate Forbes and Nicola Sturgeon, Nicola Bulley has been the most talked-about, and most speculated-about woman in the country in these past few weeks.

News updates serve a legitimate purpose. This was, after all, initially a missing-person enquiry. But there is nothing that can excuse the over 270 million views of TikTok videos tagged with her name, the 158 million more on Instagram, and the vast numbers of armchair sleuths, conspiracy theorists and keyboard warriors who speculated about her disappearance, sometimes hindering official searches.

And if they’re bad enough, I have nothing but contempt for those individuals, with no connection to the case, who chose to travel to the small village of St Michael’s on Wyre, to carry out their own investigations, and trade their baseless speculations for a few ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ on social media.

I get it. Social media platforms hook us in, highlight stuff they think we’ll be interested in to keep us there longer, and get us addicted to the endorphins we feel, with every like, share or comment upon our posts.

But surely that shouldn’t translate to the ghoulish tourism that St Michael’s and its inhabitants were cruelly subjected to?

Police begged people not to travel into the area unless they had legitimate cause for doing so. Villagers were reportedly forced to hire security guards to prevent YouTubers filming through their windows, or from scaling their garden fences to gain access to their properties.

TikTokkers pretending to be legitimate members of the media knocked on doors in the hope of interviews, and two people were discovered carrying out excavations in nearby woods; one digging while the other filmed. Another YouTuber was charged with public order offences.

The former Chief Superintendent for Lancashire Police, Bob Eastwood, said that during this period “there were people purporting to be the media that quite clearly weren’t, and they were climbing over the fence to take pictures of the body that the police were recovering. This is something else.”

He is right. It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before.

Click here to read more by Nicky Marr

What drives people to behave like this? An inflated sense of self-importance? A need to be ‘seen’ on social media? Or does it stem from an increasing mistrust in the police, particularly when it comes to their treatment of women?

Lancashire Police didn’t cover themselves with glory throughout this enquiry. In releasing details of Nicola Bulley’s private life and health matters, they painted her as a menopausal woman with an alcohol problem. Was the public sharing of those details relevant to the search? Are we to infer that menopausal women who drink are worth less? Problematic?

Whatever it was about this case that stirred such frenzied hysteria, I hope we never see it again. Nicola Bulley’s family deserves our compassion and our respect. Her death was tragic. Her nearest and dearest must be allowed to come to terms with it and to grieve in privacy.

The disappearance and death of a woman in 2023 is not something that fame-hungry social media influencers should ever have exploited, in order to increase traffic to their profiles.

I am appalled.

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