12 Dec 2011

Milly Dowler voicemail possibly ‘automatically deleted’

New evidence suggests Milly Dowler’s voicemails could have been deleted automatically rather than by News of the World journalists, the Leveson Inquiry hears.

The allegation that Milly Dowler‘s phone was hacked and her voicemails deleted by the News of the Worldgiving her family false hope that she was alive when she went missing – was one of the most shocking revelations during the phone-hacking scandal.

The Prime Minister described the allegations as “truly dreadful” and the furore in part hastened the closure of the paper after the allegations were exposed as part of the Guardian‘s investigation into phone hacking.

But new evidence has raised questions over what happened to the missing schoolgirl’s messages.

A lawyer representing the Metropolitan Police told Lord Justice Leveson today it was “unlikely” that the News of the World’s private investigator Glenn Mulcaire was responsible for Milly’s voicemail messages being deleted.

Neil Garnham QC told the Leveson inquiry into press standards that the date Mrs Dowler believed messages were deleted was before the News of the World’s investigator had been involved in the case for the newspaper.

The “most likely” explanation is that her phone automatically deleted messages 72 hours after being listened to, said Mr Garham, but added that another News of the World journalist could have had access to Milly Dowler’s phone.

It is conceivable that other News International journalists deleted the voicemails, but the Metropolitan Police Service have no evidence to support that. Neil Garnham QC

“It is conceivable that other News International journalists deleted the voicemails, but the Metropolitan Police Service have no evidence to support that,” he said, adding: “It’s not yet possible to provide a comprehensive explanation for the fact that on that occasion the automatic ‘mailbox full’ message was not heard.”

In October, News International paid £2m to the Dowler family to settle a civil claim that a private investigator intercepted messages in 2002.

The Guardian story has since been given a footnote saying that the News of the World is no longer considered responsible and the journalist who wrote the original story, Nick Davies, has today written about the implications of this new evidence.

Former journalists defend tabloid

Former senior News of the World journalists also appeared at the Leveson inquiry today – Mazher Mahmood, former head of News of the World investigations defended his investigations as being in the public interest, and the paper’s former chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck, who defended publishing the high profile stories which alleged that F1 boss Max Mosley had taken part in a ‘Nazi orgy’ and that David Beckham had allegedly had an affair, by saying they were both in the public interest.

Mr Mahmood, who is most well known for uncovering the match-fixing scandal by Pakistani cricketers by disguising himself as a ‘fake sheikh’, was allowed to give evidence in front of lawyers only and away from the public gaze, to protect his identity.

He denied any knowledge of phone hacking until the paper’s former royal editor, Clive Goodman was jailed for the offence four years ago, adding: “All the fingers were pointing at the newsdesk.”

Crossing the line

Mr Mahmood, who now works at the Sunday Times, said that exposing criminal acts gave him “great satisfaction” and added: “There are times when we cross the line – but the overriding factor is the public interest.”

I am proud to have jailed paedophiles, arms dealers and drugs dealers and the like. Mazher Mahmood, former head of NOTW investigations

He admitting purchasing child pornography for example, as part of an investigation, which was “clearly illegal”, and led to a conviction, but said that none of the 20 complaints to the PCC against his stories had been upheld.

“I am proud to have jailed paedophiles, arms dealers and drugs dealers and the like,” he said. “That is my motivation,” and he added that he is happy with all of the 500 investigations he has carried out.

‘Kiss and tell’ stories

Mr Thurlbeck was arrested in April on suspicion of hacking phones and was fired by News International months later.

He said he had spent six weeks in Australia and five to six weeks in Spain in order to validate Rebecca Loos’s claims that she had an affair with David Beckham in 2004.

The average payment to the source of a front-page article was £15,000 to £20,000, said Mr Thurlbeck, but Ms Loos was paid nearly £1m for telling her story about David Beckham.

But he added that the era of so-called ‘kiss and tell’ journalism was over following Max Mosley’s legal action of 2008 where he was awarded £60,000 in privacy damages.

Public Interest

Mr Thurlbeck, who wrote the article about Mr Mosley, said that the alleged Nazi theme was what persuaded the paper that the story was in the public interest.

He was asked why he didn’t contact Mr Mosley before going to print, but said that was the responsibility of senior colleagues.

When asked by Lord Justice Leveson why as a chief reporter, and former news editor, he wasn’t part of that decision, Mr Thurlbeck insisted he wasn’t. “This was the strategy,” he said. “You might find this hard to believe but this is the way the newspaper worked.”