Rupert Murdoch’s now-defunct News of the World newspaper told police in 2002 that it accessed a missing girl’s voice mails, saying it got her mobile-phone number and access code from other schoolchildren.
Surrey Police, the force southwest of London that investigated the 2002 abduction and murder of 13-year-old Milly Dowler, made the statement in a letter to Parliament’s Culture Committee published today. It set out the interactions between officers and News of the World journalists in the weeks immediately after Dowler’s disappearance, a story that made headlines in Britain’s tabloid press.
A July 4 Guardian newspaper report that News of the World journalists deleted messages from Dowler’s voice mail during the police probe led to a public outcry, forcing News Corp. to close the Sunday tabloid, then Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper, and sparking a judge-led inquiry into U.K. media ethics. The Guardian said last month that the News of the World may not after all have been responsible for the deletions.
Surrey Police said in their letter to lawmakers that in April 2002, the newspaper picked up a message on Dowler’s voice mail left in error by a recruitment company in another part of the country. When the News of the World contacted the police to tell them about it, the police replied that they believed it to be the work of a hoaxer. They later established it was a genuine message left as the result of a wrong number.
When the police asked the News of the World journalist “why he was so convinced the message on Milly’s voice mail was not the work of a hoaxer,” the reply was that the paper “had got Milly’s mobile-phone number and PIN from schoolchildren.”
A week later, the newspaper still refused to accept the police’s version of events, with a reporter recorded as saying that the account was “inconceivable” and that journalists were “absolutely certain” the girl had run away to the north of England, according to the letter. The paper had five reporters working on the story.
According to the recruitment agency, at one stage a News of the World reporter claimed to be working “in full cooperation with the police.” The police denied this.
News Corp.’s U.K. publishing unit said that the matter is being investigated by police and “those who sanctioned or conducted this activity should rightly be held accountable.”
“The interception of Milly Dowler’s phone was shocking and totally unacceptable,” News International said in a statement. “The abhorrent nature of what was discovered to have happened at the News of the World ultimately led to its closure last year.”