Voices: The Nicola Bulley ‘armchair detectives’ have crossed a line
There are thousands of retired and former police officers who've had the good grace and emotional intelligence not to get involved in the runaway commentary that has surrounded Nicola Bulley’s disappearance.
The only people who can claim to actually care about finding Nicola are her distraught loved ones and the 200 or so professionals who are on the ground in Lancashire, and have been for the past three weeks. Virtually everybody else who has invited themselves into the midst of these awful circumstances has done so for personal gain or validation.
Let me be clear: I am not referring to former cops who in good faith have tried to provide some insight into the rationale and investigation around “high-risk” missing person strategies.
I'm instead talking about a handful of former police officers, who in my opinion have recklessly thrown in completely unfounded and entirely speculative theories, that have resulted in the press and media seizing upon them and spreading them as if they were the truth.
It is essentially spotlight courting, and quite frankly I'm sickened by it (as are all the other current and serving police professionals I know).
This awful tragedy has been treated by some as a feast.
These pundits have added nothing of value to the quest to find Nicola, and in my view have probably made things worse.
In an investigation of this type, the senior investigative officer (SIO) and lead detectives examine every single lead or scrap of information that comes their way. That information is then assessed, and in many cases actioned or tasked.
This means detectives are directed to follow that information up, even if it results in it being discounted. The SIO on the Bulley case mentioned in her briefing that the police had gone over in excess of 1,200 lines of enquiry; a massive task that has in most cases resulted in absolutely nothing of value.
In my view, the “former cop” pundits have done their fair share in fuelling this, by promoting their own “theories” which seem born of their own imaginations with no foundation in any actual evidence or valid insight into the investigation. This is something that's entirely at odds with their real-life policing backgrounds, no matter how brief or remote from actual experience of investigating cases like Nicola's.
Such commentaries have helped fuel the social media circus that's developed around this tragedy, which has seen swarms of theories delivered by people who at best listen to too many true crime podcasts, and at worst may purposefully be trying to hurt Nicola's loved ones.
In this case – quite shockingly on occasions – the behaviour of so-called armchair detectives has crossed a line, the line of human decency for certain, and also the line of distracting from – and in some cases actually meddling in – the enquiry.
I do worry that this will now become the norm, and going forward there is a fine balance to be struck between armchair sleuthing and outright malice.
Nicola’s disappearance isn’t last night’s TV drama cliffhanger – it is a real event concerning real people, and we should respect that.
I'd like to hope that after Nicola is found, we as a society will reflect on what we did and what we said during these weeks.
Who did this endless speculation benefit? Worse still, who did it hurt?
Mike Pannett is an author and former police officer