Milly Dowler disclosure puts Rebekah Brooks in spotlight
NoW’s illegal hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone caused her family to believe she was still alive when she wasn’t
In 2002, the News of the World illegally accessed the voicemail of missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler shortly after her disappearance. The news, reported by the Guardian late yesterday, has shocked a public already deluged with revelations about the paper's phone-hacking of celebrities, sportsmen and politicians in a quest for intimate details of their target's private lives. This new disclosure involving a non-celebrity – and a victim of abduction and murder - shines a disturbing new light on the scandal.
The Dowler family's lawyer, Mark Lewis, has issued a statement describing the paper's actions as "heinous and despicable", causing the family "distress heaped upon tragedy".
Having logged and recorded the messages he had retrieved, Glenn Mulcaire, the paper's contracted private investigator, then deleted older messages in Milly Dowler's inbox once it was full, in order to free up space for further messages from Milly's distraught friends and family, which he also intercepted and passed back to News of the World journalists.
The paper took particular interest in the Dowler case, they have claimed, as part of their high-profile campaign against paedophile activity – a campaign launched and closely overseen by the paper's then editor, Rebekah Wade (now Brooks), and her deputy, Andy Coulson, who has already resigned from the paper (in 2007) and the prime minister's press office (in January this year) over his connection with previous phone-hacking scandals.
By deleting messages illegally retrieved from Milly Dowler's mobile phone, the paper misled her family into believing she had emptied her inbox herself and was still alive – when she was not. This gave the family hope, which was exploited by the paper in publishing optimistic interviews with them.
In deleting the earlier messages, the paper also removed information that would have had a direct impact on the police investigation of Milly's disappearance.
This new development could be a major turning point in a scandal which has been rumbling like a volcano with growing volume for two years, since it was revealed in July 2009 that the paper had settled an alleged £700,000 with Professional Footballers' Association president, Gordon Taylor, in recognition of their invasion of his privacy by phone-hacking, for a story that was never published.
It is significant that this is the first hard News of the World phone-hacking story to have emerged which relates to the editorship of Rebekah Brooks. Up until now, police inquiries, for reasons never adequately explained, have focused on the years 2005 and 2006, when the paper was under Andy Coulson's editorship.
In August 2006 Clive Goodman, the paper's royal reporter, and Glenn Mulcaire were arrested, pleaded guilty and were subsequently imprisoned for hacking into the voicemails of Prince Charles's staff at Clarence House.
Under questioning, Andy Coulson has told a Scottish Court in the perjury trial of Tommy Sheridan, and a Commons culture committee inquiry that he was completely unaware of any illegal phone-hacking activity on the paper he ran.
Coulson claimed initially that Clive Goodman was a single 'rogue' reporter. Since then four News of the World journalists have been arrested on charges of phone hacking, and several more have been suspended or helped to move on from the paper.
Rebekah Brooks is now chief executive officer of News International, the London newspaper arm of News Corp, which is very close to finalising negotiations with the coalition government over the acquisition of 100 per cent of BSkyB, where currently they own only 39 per cent.
It is likely that this latest story of the paper's illegal activity will raise further substantive questions over News Corp's suitability to be responsible for a near monopoly in some key areas of broadcasting in this country.
This will also cause many to question more closely whether it is appropriate for the Prime Minister to maintain a close friendship with Rebekah Brooks with whom he attended a private dinner over Christmas and who was present at his exclusive birthday party at Chequers last year.
Mulcaire has claimed in the past that he was the last link in a chain of command at the News of the World, simply responding to the instructions he had received down the line from his de facto employers. Speculation about the length and composition of that chain is now bound to increase, with attention focusing on just how far up the knowledge and condonation of Muclaire's activities stretched.
If it were to reach up, through Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, to their former executive chairman, Les Hinton, it is likely that Rupert Murdoch, already heartily sick of the whole mess surrounding his British Sunday tabloid, would be forced to take action at his most prized possession, Dow Jones/Wall Street Journal, where Hinton is now CEO.
Over the past year it has emerged that a strong symbiotic relationship exists between News International and the Metropolitan Police. The question now troubling many seekers after truth is whether or not the Met have any real interest or motivation in bagging trophies of this magnitude.
• Peter Burden is the author of 'News of the World? Fake Sheikhs and Royal Trappings', an account of how the paper gets its stories. ·