News International and Phone-hacking - Culture, Media and Sport Committee Contents

5  The hacking of Milly Dowler's telephone

230.  Amanda Dowler, known as "Milly", was a 13 year old girl who went missing on her way home from school in Walton-on-Thames on 21 March 2002. Her body was found on 18 September 2002, and on 23 June 2011 Levi Bellfield was convicted of her murder.

231.  When Rebekah Brooks (then Wade) appeared before the Committee in connection with its inquiry into Privacy and Media Intrusion in 2003, she emphasized the sensitivity of the News of the World's approach to covering murder investigations and stories about missing people. She said that the News of the World worked very closely with police liaison officers and that, on their advice, "we are always very quick to move away when we are asked".[307] She also stated that, in the case of the Soham murders,[308] the newspapers "withdrew straight away" when warned by the PCC.[309] As part of her remarks she made specific reference to the News of the World's coverage of Milly Dowler's funeral, stating that "we were asked not to be there so one photographer went and took the picture, and one reporter went for the words and that was it".[310] These are positive assertions about the behaviour of News of the World reporters in connection with coverage of high-profile crimes, and were made to portray a culture of ethical and respectful journalism. We sought to investigate whether this account was borne out by the facts as they emerged in relation to the actual behaviour of News of the World reporters tasked with covering Milly Dowler's disappearance.

232.  In July 2011, the Guardian newspaper reported that murder victim Milly Dowler's voicemail had been illegally accessed after she went missing in March 2002.[311] It was also reported that some of the voicemails on her telephone had been deleted after the time that Milly Dowler first went missing, giving her family false hope that she was still alive.

233.  The News of the World's coverage of Milly's disappearance did indeed provide evidence it had knowledge of messages left on her mobile phone. One particular story, which made detailed reference to three voicemail messages left on Milly Dowler's telephone, was printed in early editions of the News of the World on 14 April 2002. By the time that later editions appeared, the article made only passing reference to a single voicemail message.[312] At the time of Milly's disappearance, Rebekah Brooks was Editor of the News of the World and, in July 2011, she confirmed to us that "the story ran for a very, very long time, so I will have been involved in the story over the many years, even when I was editor of The Sun".[313] She said however, that she was on holiday from 9 April 2002 until 13 April 2002 when the above articles appeared . She was unable to tell us who stood in for her as Editor during that period.[314] As Legal Manager of News Group Newspapers, Tom Crone had legal oversight of stories being published in the paper. In September 2011, he initially told us that he had no recollection of the Milly Dowler story from 14 April 2002, and subsequently that he would have left the office by the time that the replacement article was issued for later editions.[315]

234.  In view of the positive assertions made by Rebekah Brooks about the conduct of News of the World journalists in relation to the disappearance of Milly Dowler when she appeared before us on 19 July 2011, we asked her about the allegations that Milly's voicemail had been illegally accessed in 2002. She repeated several times that "the idea that Milly Dowler's phone was accessed by someone being paid by the News of the World—or even worse, authorised by someone at the News of the World—is as abhorrent to me as it is to everyone in this room".[316] She also described it as "staggering", said that it "appalls us all" and made her feel "shock and disgust".[317] She maintained that she had only learnt that Milly Dowler's voicemail had been illegally accessed "two weeks ago" when the Guardian articles appeared and stated very clearly that she had no knowledge of any News of the World involvement in such activity at the time.[318] She was asked seven times what she knew about information being passed by the News of the World to Surrey police relating to messages illegally retrieved by that paper from Milly Dowler's telephone, and denied all knowledge of this.[319] Rebekah Brooks said that in 2003 she had sincerely believed that "both on the Milly Dowler case and in the Soham cases, the press had exercised great caution, and had tried to respect the privacy of the families", although she noted that "in the light of what we believe the allegations are now [this] might sound, quite frankly, ridiculous".[320] Her account of what would have happened on the night of 13 April 2002 was as follows:

I am sure questions were asked about where that information came from. They will have been asked of the reporter or they will have been asked of the news editor. The night editor and the lawyer would have checked them, and there would have been a process around every story, whether it was a single column or the front page, to determine where the information came from. I can tell you now that it would not have been the case that someone said 'Oh yes, that came from an illegal voicemail interception'. It seems that that it is inconceivable that people did not know this was the case, but at the time it wasn't a practice that was condoned or sanctioned at the News of the World under my editorship.[321]

235.  In view of the statement by Rebekah Brooks that the lawyer on duty "would have checked" the information in the Milly Dowler story published by the News of the World on 14 April 2002, on 6 September 2011 we asked Tom Crone to tell us whether he knew that reporters at the paper had illegally accessed voicemail messages. Although he could not remember the story or the night in question, he offered an explanation as to how the News of the World had come to be in possession of detailed information about the content of voicemail messages left on Milly Dowler's telephone:

at first glance, this story would appear to come from police sources. Now, that is not unusual. In a murder investigation or any other big investigation, a reporter will perhaps get some information from a police officer—hopefully in a proper way, incidentally. [...] The police, for their own intelligence reasons, might think it is important to put messages out there in pursuit of their investigation. Now, the detail on this story suggests it is a police briefing of some sort, either only to the News of the World or in a more general way. What could have happened is that the police see the first edition and they say, 'No, I didn't mean you to identify it in that way.' They would ring in and say, 'That's ridiculous. You shouldn't have done that.' Then, the news desk would just pull it out.[322]

236.  He went on to surmise that "I think it is almost inevitable that the police investigating her disappearance would have gone to whatever was available on her mobile phone, which presumably is with the network".[323] Tom Crone did confirm in his evidence that, if messages hacked from someone's mobile telephone had been obtained by the News of the World rather than from the police, editors would routinely have sought advice from the in-house legal team before publication.[324]

237.  Although Tom Crone's account of 6 September did not purport to be anything other than supposition, since it hinted that the police may have divulged the content of voicemail messages obtained as part of their investigation, we decided to ask Surrey Police for their account of events in April 2002. In the light of all we heard from witnesses from News International, the evidence that they provided makes astonishing reading. We note that the evidence is a summary of Surrey Police's present understanding of events and that new information is likely to emerge. We also note that Surrey Police have not named individuals in order to protect the integrity of ongoing investigations by the Metropolitan Police. With those caveats in mind, we summarise the position as we understand it, as follows:

  • After Milly Dowler disappeared, reporters from the News of the World accessed her voicemail. This is clear from paragraph 13 of the Surrey Police evidence, which states that "[REDACTED] said that the NOTW was in possession of a recording of the voicemail message".[325] The News of the World claimed that it had been able to access the voicemail by making enquiries of other children who were Milly Dowler's friends: when asked why he was so convinced that the message on Milly's phone was not the work of a hoaxer, a News of the World reporter told the police that "the NOTW had got Milly's mobile phone number and PIN from school children".[326]
  • Although the names have been redacted in the account provided by Surrey Police, it is clear that more than one reporter was involved. For example, paragraph 28 of the evidence records that "[REDACTED] said that the NOTW had 5 reporters working on this story".[327] Not only does this indicate that more than a single 'rogue reporter' at the paper was aware of the practice of phone-hacking, at least in relation to Milly Dowler, but it also undermines Rebekah Brooks' 2003 account of the sensitivity of the newspaper's approach to high profile police cases.
  • The News of the World made no attempt to conceal from the police the fact that reporters from the paper had accessed Milly Dowler's voicemail. They made reference to this fact several times.[328] In turn this means that in 2002 Surrey Police knew that someone working for or on behalf of the News of the World had accessed Milly Dowler's voicemail.
  • On 12 April 2002, the News of the World tasked someone with impersonating Mrs Dowler in order to try to obtain information from a recruitment agency in connection with Milly's disappearance.[329] Later a reporter impersonated "a friend of Milly Dowler" in order to try to obtain information from the agency.[330]
  • A News of the World reporter told a recruitment agency that he was "working in full cooperation with the police" in order to try to obtain information from the agency about Milly Dowler.[331]
  • A journalist from the News of the World ascribed views to Surrey Police that the police had not endorsed. At 8.10 p.m. on Saturday 13 April 2002, the journalist from the News of the World telephoned Surrey Police to tell them that the paper would be running a story the next day which ascribed the following statement to Surrey Police: "we are intrigued, but believe the message may have been left by a deranged woman hoaxer thought to have hampered other police inquiries".[332] When a police press officer objected to the statement, they were told that "the first edition had already gone to print".[333] The replacement official police line read as follows: "we are evaluating the claim that Amanda may have registered with a recruitment agency. At this stage there is the possibility that a hoaxer may be involved in generating this story".[334]
  • The attempts by the News of the World to get a scoop on Milly Dowler led to a considerable amount of valuable police resource being redirected to the pursuit of false leads.

238.  This behaviour is indefensible on its own, but rendered yet more grotesque by the fact that the voicemail seized upon by News of the World reporters as evidence that Milly Dowler was still alive turns out to have been left by accident as a result of a telephone number belonging to a Ghanaian woman called "Nana" being incorrectly written down by a recruitment agency in the North of England.[335] On 17 April 2002, indeed, Surrey Police performed a download of Milly's mobile phone and discovered this message—which was identical to the one the senior News of the World journalist had relayed to them four days earlier.

239.  The only similarity between the account presented by Surrey Police and the hypothesis presented to the Committee by Tom Crone is the fact that the story published in early editions of the News of the World on 14 April 2002 was amended upon the advice of Surrey Police. However, whereas Tom Crone suggested that Surrey Police may have tried to retract information that they had provided but not intended for publication, what actually happened was that the News of the World falsely attributed views to Surrey Police, which the paper was later forced to correct. Surrey Police evidence states that "[REDACTED] stated that this [new] line would be used in all 5 editions of the NOTW on 14 April 2002 save for the first edition [...] which would carry the line that he had informed the press officer of at 2010".[336]

240.  The News of the World's brazen behaviour by no means ended there. A week later, on 20 April 2002, an employee of the newspaper—whose name Surrey Police has redacted— sent an e-mail to their press officer, remonstrating with her and implying that the newspaper had actually been trying to help by sharing Milly's voicemails with the police:

"As you are aware, last Saturday evening (13 April) the News of the World contacted the Dowler squad with information we had received," the e-mail stated.

"In the course of a conversation....we passed on information about messages left on Amanda Dowler's mobile phone...In particular, we referred to a message from [REDACTED] Recruitment Agency at [REDACTED] apparently left on Amanda's phone on the morning of March 27. In addition, we advised of other messages left on this number and we offered a copy of a tape recording of messages and other assistance," the e-mail continued.

And, as a result of the police response, it added: "as a consequence we took immediate steps to radically and substantially amended [sic] the article that had been prepared for publication."

241.  The News of the World employee, Surrey Police added, "went on to ask for clarification and further information about a number of matters as 'a matter of urgency''' —a further attempt, clearly by the newspaper to bounce the police into co-operation or a response.[337]

242.  Rebekah Brooks was Editor of the News of the World at the time that reporters from that paper illegally accessed Milly Dowler's voicemail in 2002. She told us that she only became aware of the hacking of Milly Dowler's telephone in early July 2011. In support of this, we note that she has stated that she was on holiday between 9 and 13 April 2002, the period over which Surrey Police had most contact with the News of the World about the Milly Dowler story, although she had returned by the following week, and contact with Surrey Police continued until 20 April 2002. Impersonating members of a missing girl's family; besieging an employment agency; falsely asserting cooperation with the police; falsely quoting the police; and, according to their own account, obtaining Milly Dowler's mobile telephone number from her school friends are hardly the actions of a respectful and responsible news outlet. For those actions, and the culture which permitted them, the Editor should accept responsibility.

243.  Tom Crone was Legal Manager of News Group Newspapers in 2002 and was on duty on the night of 13 April 2002, when the News of the World was engaged in producing an article based on information gleaned from the illegal accessing of Milly Dowler's voicemail. He has said that he does not remember the article in question. It is, however, very unlikely that he had no sight of at least the first edition article before he left on the night of 13 April 2002. It is indeed highly probable, in view of his role at the newspaper, that he was responsible for checking the original article's content, at the very least. Anybody who saw that article will have been aware that the information came from Milly Dowler's voicemail account. Any competent newspaper lawyer could reasonably have been expected to ask questions about how that information had been obtained. In this context, we are astonished that Tom Crone should have decided to present to the Committee the hypothesis that the information was provided—and subsequently retracted—by the police. We note that his hypothesis bears some resemblance to the process by which Surrey Police ensured that later editions of the News of the World contained a quotation that they had approved instead of the falsely attributed quotation that appeared in the early edition.

244.  We note that the Metropolitan Police and Surrey Police are trying to piece together exactly what happened in relation to the hacking of Milly Dowler's voicemail and that the Metropolitan Police will want to question former employees of the News of the World on this subject.

245.  We note that the disappearance of Milly Dowler was properly the priority of Surrey Police at that time and that, as a result, they took no action in relation to the information they had about the News of the World. It is less excusable for Surrey Police to have sat on that information for ten more years before bringing it to the attention of the Metropolitan Police, particularly given the publicity surrounding earlier police investigations into phone-hacking at the News of the World. We note that Lord Justice Leveson is examining the relationship between the police and the press and trust that he will address the issues that this episode raises as part of his findings.

246.  We refrain from drawing conclusions about the conduct of individuals in their evidence to the Committee about Milly Dowler because at least one of those individuals has been arrested and faces the prospect of criminal charges.

307   Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Privacy and media intrusion, Fifth Report of Session 2002-03, HC 458, Vol II (hereafter, 'Privacy and media intrusion') Q 436 Back

308   The murder of two 10 year old girls in Soham, Cambridgeshire in August 2002 Back

309   Privacy and media intrusion, Vol II, Q 457 Back

310   Privacy and media intrusion, Vol II, Q 463 Back

311   See, for example, "Missing Milly Dowler's voicemail was hacked by News of the World", The Guardian, 5 July 2011 Back

312   See, for example, "Tabloid's Pursuit of Missing Girl Led to Its Own Demise", Wall Street Journal, 20 August 2011 Back

313   Q 498 Back

314   Ev 172 Back

315   Qq 1001 to 1009 Back

316   Q 477 Back

317   Qq 504 and 508 Back

318   Qq 466 and 503 Back

319   Qq 504-510 Back

320   Q 500 Back

321   Q 540 Back

322   Q 1006 Back

323   Q 1008 Back

324   Qq 1039-1044 Back

325   Ev 274 Back

326   Ev 274, para 27 Back

327   Ev 274 Back

328   Ev 274, paras 13, 15, 19, 21, 24, 26, 27, 46, 50, 51 Back

329   Ev 274, para 6 Back

330   Ev 274, para 22 Back

331   Ev 274, para 7 Back

332   Ev 274, para 30 Back

333   Ev 274, para 31 Back

334   Ev 274, para 32 Back

335   Ev 274, paras 42-44 Back

336   Ev 274, para 33 Back

337   Ev 274, para 46 Back

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Prepared 1 May 2012