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".
She also stated that, in the case of the Soham murders,
the newspapers "withdrew straight away" when warned
by the PCC. 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".
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.
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
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".
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.
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.
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 Worldor even worse, authorised by someone at
the News of the Worldis as abhorrent to me as it
is to everyone in this room".
She also described it as "staggering", said that it
"appalls us all" and made her feel "shock and disgust".
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.
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.
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".
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.
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
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 officerhopefully 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.
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".
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.
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".
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
- 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".
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.
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
Later a reporter impersonated "a friend of Milly Dowler"
in order to try to obtain information from the agency.
- 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.
- 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".
When a police press officer objected to the statement, they were
told that "the first edition had already gone to print".
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".
- 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
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.
On 17 April 2002, indeed, Surrey Police performed a download of
Milly's mobile phone and discovered this messagewhich 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".
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 newspaperwhose 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
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.
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 providedand
subsequently retractedby 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
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
The murder of two 10 year old girls in Soham, Cambridgeshire in
August 2002 Back
Privacy and media intrusion, Vol II, Q 457 Back
Privacy and media intrusion,
Vol II, Q 463 Back
See, for example, "Missing Milly Dowler's voicemail was hacked
by News of the World", The Guardian, 5 July
See, for example, "Tabloid's Pursuit of Missing Girl Led
to Its Own Demise", Wall Street Journal, 20 August
Q 498 Back
Ev 172 Back
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Qq 1039-1044 Back
Ev 274 Back
Ev 274, para 27 Back
Ev 274 Back
Ev 274, paras 13, 15, 19, 21, 24, 26, 27, 46, 50, 51 Back
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