Operation Heron – Latent topic changes in an abusive letter series

Lucia Busso*, Marton Petyko, Sarah Atkins, Tim Grant

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The paper presents a two-part forensic linguistic analysis of an historic collection of abuse letters, sent to individuals in the public eye and individuals’ private homes between 2007-2009. We employ the technique of structural topic modelling (STM) to identify distinctions in the core topics of the letters, gauging the value of this relatively underused methodology in forensic linguistics. Four key topics were identified in the letters, Politics A and B, Healthcare, and Immigration, and their coherence, correlation and shifts in topic evaluated. Following the STM, a qualitative corpus linguistic analysis was undertaken, coding concordance lines according to topic, with the reliability between coders tested. This coding demonstrated that various connected statements within the same topic tend to gain or lose prevalence over time, and ultimately confirmed the consistency of content within the four topics identified through STM throughout the letter series. The discussion and conclusions to the paper reflect on the findings as well as considering the utility of these methodologies for linguistics and forensic linguistics in particular. The study demonstrates real value in revisiting a forensic linguistic dataset such as this to test and develop methodologies for the field
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)225-258
Number of pages33
Issue number2
Early online date31 Aug 2022
Publication statusPublished - 31 Aug 2022

Bibliographical note

© Edinburgh University Press


  • abusive letter
  • corpus linguistics
  • forensic linguistics
  • semantic tagging
  • topic modelling


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