There comes a point where you have to ask what the media you consume is doing to your soul
November 21, 2023 5:49 pm(Updated 5:50 pm)
It’s become socially acceptable to regard missing people as a form of entertainment. And never has that been more clear than in the reporting around the disappearance of Nicola Bulley, which became an international news story and a source of fascination both in the mainstream media and on true crime YouTube and TikTok.
Nicola Bulley was 45 years old when she went missing last year. She worked as a mortgage adviser, was married to 44-year-old Paul Ansell. The coroner ruled that she accidentally fell into the river on 27 January while walking her dog. That should be everything we know about her, but due to the behaviour of the police prior to the discovery of her body and, to a lesser but still significant extent, the public, we know far more.
Nicola’s disappearance was obsessively followed by the public and social media influencers, who speculated over what had happened in videos and online posts while she was still missing.
A report released today found that the level of personal information shared about Nicola, specifically her mental health, her experience of the menopause and her relationship with alcohol was “avoidable and unnecessary”.
The report states: “The investigating team had background information on Nicola that was not publicly available.” It goes on to explain: “The failure to brief the mainstream media on a non-reportable basis on this information, or to adequately fill the information vacuum, allowed speculation to run unchecked. This led to an extraordinary increase in media and public interest in the case, which was fuelled by several newsworthy elements. These included the apparent mystery of why Nicola had disappeared, leaving behind her dog and leaving her mobile phone still connected to a Microsoft Teams call.”
It’s true that for the most part, the failings around the investigation lie with Lancashire Police. The information that they provided helped to create the most interest possible in the case. As an author who has written multiple thrillers, I can tell you from direct personal experience that the image of an empty kitchen, a barking dog and a still connected Teams call is an impactful hook. I’d read on.
And if we were dealing with fiction here, that would be great. But we’re not dealing with fiction; we’re dealing with a real life human person who became an international name while the investigation into her disappearance was ongoing.
Over the last 10 years, true crime and real-life investigations have gone from being a niche interest often regarded as a little bit distasteful, to being one of the most popular genres both for professionally produced documentaries, and for amateur podcasts and TikToks.
Sure, when someone is missing it’s in their best interests to drum up awareness of their case, but not by using the narrative devices that made Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train best sellers. Nicola Bulley should never have been turned into a complicated anti-heroine for strangers to obsess over or to create wild hypotheses about.
But while the majority of the blame lies with Lancashire Police, there’s plenty of further culpability. Sky News journalist Kay Burley came under fire from all sides of the political spectrum for her “ghoulish” broadcasting from a graveyard while she was still missing. TikToks, podcasts and YouTube videos all sprang up almost overnight, from the same people who have covered stories like the murder of JonBenet Ramsey or influencer Alexis Sharkey.
If Nicola hadn’t been a real person then this case would have been dark, gripping, brilliant entertainment. But she was real. She was a person, and a mother, and a tragic loss to the people who loved her and who mourn her now. The way that her disappearance was handled says some very frightening things about the way that we treat human suffering as entertainment.
After Nicola’s accidental death was reported and TikTok lit up with international true crime enthusiasts making videos about “what really happened”, I swore off the true crime genre. I like a twisty yarn as much as the next person, I’ve made a career out of creating them. But there comes a point where you have to ask what the media you consume is doing to your soul, and I’m entirely sure that in the case of true crime, what’s happening to us is not good.