5 Jul 2011

‘Milly Dowler phone hacking claims change everything’

Chief Correspondent

Alex Thomson says that following allegations that News of the World tapped Milly Dowler’s mobile phone messages, the wider hacking scandal has been propelled into very dark territories.

Until the Milly Dowler hacking claims, the PR strategy from News of the World has been effective in trying to portray phonetapping as two things: One, just a matter of celebrity London tittle-tattle; two, just an issue for very few individuals on one newspaper.

After the harrowing business of Milly, few people will ever again think this is just a matter for the world of celebrity.

Equally, I predict that this will blow wider in time than just one tabloid newspaper, and wider still, I suspect than simply News International.

It’s not just me. Along with a few whistleblowers, Tom Watson, the campaigning MP, has been saying plenty on the issue – as yet entirely off the record.

So how wide could it go? Well just look at the failure of other newspapers to give this story any kind of prominence in recent months. Their silence entirely plays into the News International PR containment strategy. Curiouser and curiouser.

Let us turn, too, to a prominent politician. I’m going to call her Tessa Jowell, because that is her name. And Tessa recently told me (very much on the record and very much into the lens of a recording TV camera) an interesting tale of north London life.

One evening, the former Culture Secretary, was not particularly busy. Nothing in particular was happening. Not unreasonably, Tessa quite fancied a quiet meal with a couple of very close friends. Nothing unusual in that. Arrangements were quickly made by phone message to fix a time and place for whatever it was – curry, Chinese, it doesn’t matter. What does matter, though, is this: As Tessa got out of her car to arrive for said quiet, uneventful and – above all – private dinner, she was met by a man who leapt out of a waiting parked car, produced a large camera and said : “Hello Tessa – a picture for the ********* ?”

Modesty – and our lawyers – forbid us from mentioning the newspaper in question. Tessa Jowell duly obliged for said picture (as if she had any choice) and then got on with her evening. However, from that second onwards, she was left wondering how that newspaper knew where to go and when?

There is only one possible source of information – the message she had left and messages that had been left on her mobile phone. She discounts – and frankly so do I – the theoretical possibility that her closest friends set her up just for the sheer malarkey of being ambushed by a snapper. She concludes then, and now, that her phone had been hacked and not by the News of the World. As Tom Watson consistently reminds the public, there is a great deal more to come out.