21 Nov 2011

Milly hack gave Dowler parents false hope

The mother of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler tells the Leveson inquiry that the hacking of her daughter’s phone left her thinking she was still alive.

Dowlers (R)

The parents of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler have been giving evidence to the Leveson inquiry into hacking.

The inquiry, which is being led by Judge Justice Leveson, was set up in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal which led to the closure of the News of the World. It began its formal hearings at the Royal Court of Justice last week.

Sally and Bob Dowler were the first witnesses to give evidence. Milly’s father, Bob Dowler said: “The gravity of what happened had to be investigated.

“Given that we learned about those hacking revelations just before the trial for the murder of our daughter, it was extremely important that we understood and that people understand exactly what went on in terms of these practices.”

Giving evidence, Mrs Dowler said she did not sleep for three nights after learning that a private detective working for the News of the World hacked her daughter’s phone.

The gravity of what happened had to be investigated. Bob Dowler

She said that she was given false hope that Milly was still alive after investigator Glenn Mulcaire deleted some of the messages on her phone.

She rang her daughter’s phone repeatedly in the weeks after she vanished while walking home in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey in March 2002.

“At first we were able to leave messages and then her voicemail became full and then you rang and you just got the recorded ‘You are unable to leave messages at the moment,'” she said.

When she finally got through, she felt elation: “I rang her phone. It clicked onto her voicemail, so I heard her voice and it was just like, ‘she’s picked up her voicemail, she’s alive. I told my friends, she’s picked up her voicemail, she’s picked up her voicemail.”

Describing the moment when the police told her and her husband that Mulcaire hacked their daughter’s phone, Mrs Dowler said: “We got a call from our FLO (police family liaison officer) to say that the Met Police wanted to see us and to tell us vaguely what it was about.

I rang her phone. It clicked onto her voicemail, so I heard her voice and it was just like, ‘She’s picked up her voicemail, she’s alive.’ Sally Dowler

“As soon as I was told it was about phone hacking, literally I didn’t sleep for about three nights because you replay everything in your mind and just think, ‘Oh, that makes sense now, that makes sense.'”

She told the judge that she hoped that lessons would be learned, saying: “Use this opportunity to do things right in future and have some decent standards.”

Mrs Dowler also described how other press intrusion caused distress and made her suspicious of interference in her phone calls. Seven weeks after Milly disappeared, she and her husband took a private walk retracing her daughter’s steps. The couple were photographed without their knowledge.

“We had put out missing leaflets and I was checking to see if the right poster was up,” she said. “The following Sunday that photo appeared in the News of the World. We did not see anyone, they must have used a telephoto lens. How on earth did they know we were doing that walk on that day? It felt like such an intrusion into a really private grief moment.”

‘I was amazed at the details’

Also giving evidence on Monday morning was journalist Joan Smith. She described how the press targeted her because of her relationship with MP Dennis McShane. Saying that she did not see herself as a public persona or a celabrity, she was astonished to read the notes Mulcaire made about her.

“I’m amazed at how shocked I was,” Ms Smith said. “Mr Mulcaire had made a note we were going to Spain. I was going to a conference and Denis was coming out the following weekend. I was amazed at the details of notes that Mulcaire had.”

Read Joan Smith on Why I'm giving evidence at the Leveson inquiry

She was allowed to see Mulcaire’s notes by officers working on the hacking case and those notes tallied with a time shortly after Denis McShane’s daughter died: “He seems to have been an obsessive note taker. I was particularly shocked that in that period when Denis was bereaved. It’s not an easy time for anyone”

The judge will hear from 16 other alleged victims of media intrusion, including actor Hugh Grant, Harry Potter author JK Rowling and Gerry McCann, father of Madeleine McCann.

The second part of the inquiry, examining the extent of unlawful activities by journalists, will not begin until detectives have completed their investigation into alleged phone hacking and corrupt payments to police and any prosecutions have concluded.