BEL MOONEY: Appalling nightmare of Nicola Bulley turned into carnival

BEL MOONEY: It’s appalling that nightmare of Nicola Bulley’s family is being turned into a ghoulish carnival of cynics, gossips, know-alls and armchair sleuths

Look at her photograph. It could be so many mothers – those bobble-hatted women who drop the kids off at school on a chilly morning and then take the dog for a walk. The shock of Nicola Bulley’s disappearance on January 27 and ongoing public fascination with the case are surely rooted in the very ordinariness of this 45-year-old’s routine.

Becoming in a sense a kind of ‘Everymum’, she could be our sister, neighbour, colleague. Natural human compassion reaches out to her two bewildered daughters, her partner Paul and her devoted family and friends as the search continues and the question remains: how can somebody disappear into thin air?

In contrast to, for example, the almost unimaginable horror of the earthquake in Turkey and Syria, a news story like this touches deep-seated feelings of personal vulnerability. You go out one morning and then…

Becoming in a sense a kind of ‘Everymum’, Nicola Bulley could be our sister, neighbour, colleague 

The question remains: how can somebody disappear into thin air? 

Paul Ansell, 44, pictured with diving expert Peter Faulding who told the anxious father ‘she’s not here’, during a third extensive day of searching along the River Wyre in Lancashire

But if only that ellipsis marked the end of speculation. Instead, it seems to me the disappearance of Ms Bulley has turned into something approaching a ghoulish carnival of cynics, know-alls, gossips, armchair sleuths and tragedy tourists. It may be natural and right that the disappearance of one woman in such ordinary circumstances should make people feel concern and compassion for her and her family.

But is it natural or right for people to tittle-tattle on social media and distress those who love the missing woman?

Is it compassion that motivated strangers to get into their cars and drive from outside the area, break into buildings along the River Wyre where a police search is active, and poke about – allegedly searching for ‘clues’? No, no, no.

Now that the monstrous policeman-rapist David Carrick has been sentenced to spend hopefully the rest of his life in prison (a dangerous place for a rotten ex-cop), and when each week seems to break news of appalling behaviour by serving officers, public trust in the police is at an understandably low ebb.

Too many bad apples destroy any faith in the greengrocer. Yet surely it is unjust for the public to express cynicism about the competence of all police officers?

On social media, I’ve seen many a comment denigrating the police searching for Ms Bulley as ‘useless’ – and worse.

Surely that’s unfair to the 40 or so detectives, under a senior investigating officer, who are combing through an enormous amount of information to try to find out what happened? It is also less than helpful when the forensic diver Peter Faulding expresses vague ideas (the phone as a ‘decoy’, a ‘third person’ involved and so on) that can only feed mistrust of the police and add to fevered speculation on social media.

During the pandemic lockdowns, even people who had not previously bothered with social media turned to it for diversion.

It was as if every other person became an immediate armchair expert on virology, Chinese laboratories, influenza statistics, the danger of inoculations and the rest.

Pictured: Lancashire Police carrying inflatable Rib boats during the search for Nicola on Wednesday

Mr Ansell and Ms Bulley pictured together. The mother-of-two has been missing for nearly two weeks

Whipped to a pitch of anxiety, even neurosis, by those doom-laden six o’clock briefings on TV and the blitz of statistics, people swapped online views that occasionally verged on the deranged. It helped no one and it added to the miasma of fear.

This situation feels a little like that. It is disturbing that suddenly Facebook and Twitter are frantic with theories about the speed at which a fast-flowing river can move a body, about dog behaviour (could the springer spaniel Willow provide fresh clues?), about how daily routines can attract stalkers, and so on.

Such amateur theories are invariably expressed with absolute conviction.

You might think it a harmless modern phenomenon – and yet it can be very damaging. It really does matter when close friends of the missing woman have begged people not to speculate, because online comment has caused ‘immense distress’ to the family.

The same friends have attacked ‘disgusting’ suggestions that Ms Bulley’s partner Paul must be involved in her disappearance.

The trouble is, millions are punch-drunk on police procedurals on TV and think they can detect and interpret any ‘clue’.

Paul Ansell, partner of Nicola Bulley views the spot on the River Wyre where she went missing with private search investigator Peter Faulding (Hi-Vis jacket)

A close family friend of the missing mother-of-two, Tilly Ann, today urged police to search an abandoned house and surrounding outbuildings

Lancashire Police search teams carry and and construct two inflatable Rib boats as they head towards the River Wyre

READ MORE: When will divers finish search for Nicola Bulley and why was phone left behind? 10 key questions as hunt for the mother-of-two continues 


So everyone becomes a star detective in their own minds. In their imagination, they are striding about with those increasingly ridiculous Silent Witness pathologists, or tiptoeing in the footsteps of Vera Stanhope and Shetland’s Jimmy Perez.

They remember how Broadchurch showed the most unlikely person can be the murderer, they agree with Line of Duty that there’s a bent copper behind every bush.

They lap up ‘true crime’ cold cases – especially when Silent Witness actress Emilia Fox is cast as a real life sleuth.

Fed by these fictions, amateur gumshoes fantasise about the 15 minutes of fame that would be theirs if they were to stumble across a tragedy lying in the undergrowth.

Do you think that harsh? Well, tell me what kind of person actually chooses to climb into the family car and drive from goodness knows where to poke about the scene of Ms Bulley’s disappearance. No doubt they film a sneaky TikTok reel, just to show their mates they were there.

I find it appalling that when a major search for a missing person is continuing and a family is desperate with anxiety and grief – that the senior police officer should have to tell the ghouls not to flock to the scene.

Superintendent Sally Riley excoriated social media speculation as ‘distracting’ and added: ‘Nor is it helpful if people … take it upon themselves to take the law into their own hands by trying to, for example, break into empty property … We will not tolerate online abuse of anyone, including innocent witnesses, members of the family and friends of local businesses or of criminal damage or burglary.’

The 46-year-old was walking her springer spaniel Willow, pictured, at the time she went missing 

Pictured: Ms Bulley with her partner Paul Ansell

READ MORE: When will divers finish search for Nicola Bulley and why was phone left behind? 10 key questions as hunt for the mother-of-two continues 


I repeat – which members of the Great British Public do such things? Well – those who spend their lives fired up by social media and think it gives them the right to sound off and to spy and stalk everyone from the latest reality TV wannabe to the desperate family of an ordinary missing woman.

Yes, concern for our fellow human beings is essential, and curiosity about them is natural. Yet it can tip over into behaviour that is much more disturbing.

An unpleasant ghoulish glee takes gawpers to the scene of a car, rail or plane crash. Or a crime scene.

So feelings about an event that’s sad, even terrible, become corrupted into a circus where nobody respects boundaries.

At times it seems that the nasty, brainless crowd mentality of social media puts us on the same level as the mobs who flocked to see public hangings in the 19th century.

On November 13 1849, Charles Dickens had a letter published in The Times, in which he expressed horror at the ‘atrocious bearing, looks, and language of the assembled spectators’ he had witnessed – 30,000 of them at a public hanging in London. 

‘Their behaviour, he wrote, was enough to make ‘a man ashamed of the shape he wore’.

It is equally shameful that amid Nicola Bulley’s disappearance, some people appear to have forgotten that this is not a TV drama, but a private nightmare for one family, aching for the person they love.

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