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February 22, 2023updated 23 Feb 2023 11:43am

Villains of Nicola Bulley media coverage were on social media, but press has lessons to learn

Liz Gerard takes a closer look at press coverage of the Bulley case and finds some aspects of it lacking.

By Liz Gerard

The moral high ground is an inhospitable terrain for our tabloid newspapers, its surface littered with rocks and hard places. So many trip hazards. Yet still, they can’t resist trying to colonise it.

For the past three weeks, they have had a field day, looking down on bungling police and ghoulish social media types as they chronicled the search for – and final discovery of – Nicola Bulley.

And then, for their pains, they were lumped in with those nasty Tiktok-ers in a coruscating family statement describing their behaviour as “appalling” and that they had to be stopped. Surely that’s not fair?

Up to a point, Lord Copper. Compared with previous such cases – Suzy Lamplugh, Joanna Yeates, Claudia Lawrence (funny how it’s only white women who get the big media attention) and, of course, Madeleine McCann – there has seemed to be less sensationalism, less delving into private spaces, fewer wild accusations and speculations.

But in this, we can judge only by what has appeared in print, not by behaviour on the ground. It is obvious, from the occasional “her Facebook page says xyz” that Ms Bulley’s social media accounts have been trawled for clues and background – and presumably those of her partner, Paul Ansell, and her relatives. Stories telling us that “at the family home, the curtains were drawn” and listing the comings and goings of delivery people, police, friends and neighbours, have been conspicuous by their absence. In a village of around 700 people, that’s something.

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There were comments this week that the press had learnt nothing from Leveson, but maybe it has learnt at least a little. It’s doubtful that these days you’d see someone targeted as a “murder suspect” and have their lives turned over under headlines like “Teacher they called Mr Strange” (as in the case of Christopher Jefferies, paid libel damages by eight newspapers in 2011 for wrongly linking him to the murder of Joanna Yeates). 

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The Nicola Bulley case has held attention in the way that other missing persons cases do not, not because of the way she vanished, but because of a series of external factors: the extraordinary response of ordinary people travelling hundreds of miles to join the hunt, trampling on people’s land, intruding into their properties; the unprecedented social media circus with tens of thousands – yes, tens of thousands, can you believe it? – joining in conference calls to swap theories; the army of former policemen (it’s always men) ever eager to share their wisdom with the world; politicians weighing in to comment on the way the inquiry was being conducted. Is that normal?

Lack of any intimate knowledge of the case was seemingly no bar to anyone – from a Tiktok influencer to the actual prime minister – sticking in their two penn’orth.

So were the press above all this? Of course not. They, too, were playing detective – The Sun splashed on a “stained” blue ski glove found in a field (complete, for some unknown reason, with a quote from Peter Andre), the “riddle” of two men looking suspicious and had a spread on a “shabby red van”.

They, too, were indulging in speculation, courtesy of those ex-cops, and savouring every moment of being in a position to attack both their online enemies and the police who were trying to find the poor woman. 

It’s worth remembering at this point that the police said from the outset that they thought Ms Bulley had fallen into the river, possibly after an “issue” with her dog, and that they regarded her disappearance as sad rather than suspicious. We must wait, of course, for the post-mortem and inquest, to learn what likely happened to her. Some explanations for her death will almost certainly be ruled out within a day or two, but it won’t stop the conspiracy theorists from theorising. If it turns out police called it right from the get-go that will not be satisfactory for some, and already we’ve had the Mail coverage of the discovery of the body headlined “Why did it take so long?”

This might be a fair question, had the Mail (and others) not assiduously promoted “expert diver” Peter Faulding, who featured in almost every episode of this saga, every time with a new storyline:

“I know where to search. I’ve got posh equipment, if she’s there, I’ll find her.”

“I don’t believe she’s in the river.”

“The mobile and harness could be a decoy.”

“Let me search the fields.”

“She could have been targeted and taken. She’s definitely not in the sea.”

“If they’d told me before she was vulnerable, I’d have looked elsewhere.”

“Don’t blame me for not finding her. It’s not fair.”

In between, he also popped up as a self-appointed spokesman for Mr Ansell, telling us about his mood and how “appalled” he had been by the police investigation. And then there were the interviews, with Sky, GB News and the Mail, to name but three. This latter referred to Faulding’s new book, of which an extract had appeared in the Mail on Sunday in January, the feature concluded with the sentence “Peter’s fee for this interview has been donated to the Lucas Dobson Water Safety Campaign, which gives lifejackets to schools.”

A very worthy cause, but excuse me? His fee? Since when did newspapers pay people with a book to promote for interviews? And “Peter”? Three days earlier the paper had pitched Faulding against the police and asked: “Who’s right about Nicola?” Well, now we have the answer. And it wasn’t the “expert diver”.

Not everyone at the paper was as enthusiastic about Mr Faulding’s contribution. Bel Mooney described his “vague ideas” as less than helpful in feeding mistrust in the police and adding to fevered speculation on social media. Jan Moir described him as a “Mr Can Do sloshing about in the river with his business card affixed to the front of his sonar machine”. This put her in mind of the undertakers who put their credentials on the side of the Queen’s hearse. “Some people will make capital from anything.”

So much for Mr Faulding, but we should remember that while he may have been ubiquitous and a self-publicist, he did offer – and give – his services for free.

The next notable feature of the search coverage was the police decision last week to tell the world that Ms Bulley was vulnerable because of “alcohol issues” related to menopause. This caused quite the rumpus, with Rishi Sunak, Suella Braverman, Penny Mordaunt, Yvette Cooper and a cast of thousands rushing to condemn. The press conference was at lunchtime last Wednesday. Throughout the afternoon, people were asking “Why tell us that now? These are personal details.” They included the journalists Petronella Wyatt, Sarah Vine and Jennifer Williams.

Yet every paper, with the exception of Metro and i, angled its coverage on what the police had said: The Mirror led on “Nicola’s turmoil” with the subdeck “Police tell of struggle with menopause and alcohol”, and an inside spread headlined “Cops visited her home 17 days before she vanished”. The Express splashed on the hunt for the first time in ten days with “High-risk Nicola had issues with alcohol”, while The Sun went with: “Cops: Nicola’s alcohol struggles”. The Mail preferred Nicola Sturgeon quitting, but had a big blue puff on: “Now police say missing Nicola had ‘significant’ alcohol issues.” At least this big blue puff also had a sub-heading: “But officers face backlash from MPs for revealing details of her private life.”

That Jan Moir column mentioned earlier asked: “How does this revelation assist the investigation into her disappearance? It doesn’t. What does it reveal about the current situation? Nothing. How bad were her ‘specific vulnerabilities’? Who knows – and the police aren’t elaborating.” But her own newspaper had made it the puff and a spread.

The “backlash” was well underway before any paper went to press, but still they nearly all went with the “intrusive” line from the police. Why? Because the police had said it? Because it was “out there” and everyone else would?

The police said it was necessary to go into detail to try to stem speculation on social media, and there were suggestions that someone was trying to hawk the “troubled Nikki” story around Fleet Street. If that were the case, would they have found any buyers? It would be nice to think that in this era, the answer would have been: No. But we shall never know because instead of one title forking out for the exclusive, it was given to all of them on a plate for nothing. And they lapped it up.

Ms Bulley’s personal details and the accusations of sexism weren’t the only things to emerge from that press conference. The superintendent conducting proceedings dared to wear a sleeveless dress, prompting Petronella Wyatt – she of the “it’s horrible that they were so personal” tweets – to return to Twitter to to accuse her of using Ms Bulley’s disappearance as an excuse to showcase her toned physique.

Amanda Platell had got there before her, tweeting: “Detective Superintendent Rebecca Smith at press conference yesterday – skin tight navy dress, stilettos, poker straightened hair … is she auditioning for Love Island for midlifers.” And she followed it up in her Mail column, noting that the tweet had been achieved 4.5m views. Which, as most people know, is not necessarily a sign of approval.

Peter Faulding was not alone in complaining about the timing, rather than the fact of the revelation of Ms Bulley’s vulnerability. A number of newspapers made the same point, as though sharing these personal details ten days earlier would have made a difference. In what way? In that, they wouldn’t have bothered covering the story if they thought she was just some flaky woman? Fiona Hamilton in the Times and Stephen Wright in the Mail (having first claimed credit for getting the Met involved in the Soham investigation) both thought that Leveson had a lot to answer for, that police officers could not now have a confidential conversation with a journalist “on background”. But how reliable were those conversations in the old days? I remember an extremely respected crime reporter returning from a Jill Dando briefing convinced that Barry George absolutely 100% definitely did it: “Just you wait ‘til you see the stuff they’ve got on him. It’s damning.” Right.

In cases like these, it is obviously in the family’s interests to keep the story alive, and so they took part in a series of press conferences and TV interviews – including with Sky, who were to be denounced on Monday. There seems to have been little direct contact with newspapers. I noted one “told the Mirror”, but most press coverage has been based on those television appearances, police statements, and – here is where the danger lies – what anonymous “locals” and “friends” had to say. While the amateur sleuths online and on the ground were pilloried, the whole tenor of the coverage – here’s an annotated map, here’s a timeline, here are 15 questions that need answering – was bound to encourage readers to try to unravel the “mystery” with a flash of brilliant insight that had eluded everyone else – like Vera or Neville Parker. But this was real life.

For once, though, there was little or no lifting or regurgitating of posts from Twitter or Instagram. In print at least.

But these days every newspaper has a website and the online beasts are not only voracious but less inhibited than their dead-tree counterparts. The Daily Express splashed twice in a week on the family’s dismay at “vile theories” and “appalling rumours”, but that didn’t stop its website churning some of those theories – if not the most wounding ones. Newsquest, which owns about a third of our regional papers, told its journalists to use the story to drive traffic to its true-crime YouTube channel, which features Mark Williams-Thomas, who also happens to be the Express’s retired copper of choice. (Others are available, including Martyn Underhill, Philip Flower, Simon Harding and Peter Kirkham.)

There is absolutely no question that one family’s trauma was used to drive traffic and, however much the “respectable” arm of the press – the bits of paper that you buy in shops – may argue that it is more responsible editorially than those unregulated internet cowboys, its online incarnations are just as avid for the revenue clicks bring. Nor are mainstream media brands shy of using the demon Tiktok. Of the first 24 videos offered on a search of the site for #bulley, 13 were MSM offerings – seven from the Daily Mail, with headlines such as “BOMBSHELL Facts and myths on Nicola Bulley” and “Friend shares ELEVEN facts about Nicola’s disappearance”.

nicola bulley social media tiktok videos
TikTok accounts discussing Nicola Bulley disappearance

And so Ms Bulley’s body was found, bringing the headlines: “No words, just agony” – the almost universal summary of Paul Ansell’s reaction to the discovery.

The Sun was one of the few to report the source: “Sky News correspondent Inzamam Rashid said he had been in touch with Nicola’s family members, who sent him a string of broken loveheart emojis.

He said they felt agony and heartbreak at the news and in a message Paul had written: ‘No words right now, just agony’.”

This, of course, became hugely relevant on Monday with the confirmation that Ms Bulley had been identified and the reading of that family statement, which specifically accused Sky and ITN of intrusion when they had asked for privacy.

Some of the Sky coverage has certainly felt uncomfortable, all that retracing of steps and “bumping into” the person who found the phone on the bench. But the family’s criticisms did not stop at the two television companies. They also attacked individuals on social media and “the Press”. Maybe they thought “the Press” was an umbrella term for all media – although they also talked about “the Press and other media channels” and about outlets running stories “to sell papers”.  Ofcom has immediately started an investigation into Sky and ITN. In the absence of a formal complaint, there will be no official scrutiny of press conduct.

But that doesn’t mean newspapers shouldn’t undertake a bit of self-examination. How tasteful was it for Mail+ subscribers to have the opportunity to scan a QR code and “watch the haunting video retracing last walk” or to participate in a poll on how well or badly the police were doing?

It’s too easy to turn the fire on the Tiktok ghouls and the police and the crime tourists and pretend everything in the house is rosy. It might be better than it was before Leveson, but that doesn’t mean it’s good or even adequate.

The first test was the reporting of that statement, with its key phrases:

“One day we will have to explain to them that the press and members of the public accused their dad of wrongdoing, misquoted and vilified friends and family.

“This is absolutely appalling. We tried last night to take in what we had been told in the day, only to have Sky News and ITV making contact with us directly when we expressly asked for privacy. They again have taken it upon themselves to run stories about us to sell papers and increase their own profiles. 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? These are our lives and our children’s lives.”

The i splashed on the family accusing “shameful TV and social media”, and the Guardian’s front had “Grieving family blast ‘shameful’ media”. Everyone else preferred to “let Nikki rest”. On Monday evening, Mirror associate editor Kevin Maguire tweeted the Lancashire Police update with the comment: “Quite a statement from Nicola Bulley’s family”. His paper didn’t seem to share his assessment, limiting its reporting of it to “They also criticised certain media outlets over coverage of the case” and the complaint that they had been “misquoted and vilified”. It didn’t mention the Press or Sky or ITN.

The Sun said that they had criticised “some members of the public and media outlets” and “made claims that Sky and ITN had tried to contact them when they’d asked for privacy”. Again the Press element is missing. 

The Mail splash said that they had “criticised some of the press coverage” – a line that was absent from the online version for part of the day – while a story inside focused on “Relatives’ broadside at sections of the media”. This – in common with the i report – edited out the words “to sell papers” from the sentence about “running stories…to increase their profiles”. But it did report the section about accusations and vilification – followed by the defence: “There have been no accusations made against Mr Ansell in the Press, but social media has been awash with hurtful speculation.”

This much, I think is true. Newspapers did not make accusations against Mr Ansell or vilify Ms Bulley’s friends and relatives. It is possible that they were misquoted, but without seeing specific examples – which are hardly at the top of the family’s list of priorities – it’s hard to judge.  

What was not reasonable, though, was to take a section of the statement saying “This is absolutely appalling, they have to be held accountable, this cannot happen to another family” and make it seem as though it the police were to blame, by putting it in the context of “addressing the upset caused by the intrusion they had suffered after Lancashire Constabulary lost control of the case…and allowed a vacuum of information to open”.

The heavies all reported most of the statement in some form, but the best effort really came from the Express, which ran it in full, in a panel, unvarnished.

If you are going to dish it out as aggressively as our popular papers do day in and day out, it really does behove you to take it on the chin when the criticism is aimed at you.

Email pged@pressgazette.co.uk to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog

Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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