Pressure on the News of the World over phone-hacking allegations intensified still further on Tuesday after allegations surfaced that journalists at the paper intercepted the voicemail messages of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.
Hacks working for the NoTW allegedly deleted voicemail messages sent to Dowler at the time she went missing in March 2002, interfering with police inquiries into her disappearance in the process. The deletion of phone messages, an action apparently taken to free up space for extra messages, gave her family false hope that she might be alive in addition to hampering a police investigation, The Guardian reports.
Police would be interested in preserving voicemail messages to murder victims not least because of the possibility that the murderer themselves might leave a message in an attempt to cover their tracks.
Scotland Yard is investigating the allegations as part of its re-opened inquiry into phone hacking by the paper. Previously these allegations have largely centred on charges that hacks at the paper used private investigators to hack into the voicemail messages of celebrities and public figures in a hunt for gossip.
The Dowler hack allegations are, to put it mildly, far more serious and are likely to place renewed pressure on senior managers at the paper at the time including then-editor of the paper, Rebekah Brooks, now Rupert Murdoch's chief executive in the UK. Her deputy at the time, Andy Coulson, resigned as the prime minister's media adviser in January at the same time police re-opened an investigation into phone hacking at the News of the World. Brooks ran a controversial name-and-shame child abusers campaign during her stint editing the paper.
In the days after Milly's abduction, the Dowler family spoke of their hope that their daughter might still be alive in an exclusive interview with the News of the World.
The Dowlers' family lawyer, Mark Lewis, described the News of the World's alleged activities as "heinous" and "despicable". The family intends to sue the paper for damages.
Dowler, 13, was abducted on her way home to Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, on 21 March 2002. Police initially thought that she might have run away from home. The deletion of mobile family messages gave substance to this suggestion and served to cloud the picture about what happened to her in the crucial first few days after she was abducted. Levi Bellfield, 43, was jailed for life for murdering Dowler last month. Former bouncer Bellfield was previously convicted of murdering two other young women, Marsha McDonnell and Amelie Delagrange: both crimes happened in the two years after Dowler's murder.
Evidence that News of the World hacks may have intercepted and deleted messages sent to Dowler comes from a collection of notes kept by Glenn Mulcaire, the disgraced PI jailed for hacking into the voicemail messages of royal aides at the behest of the News of the World.
The paper made little attempt to hide its activities at the time of Milly's abduction. For example, it ran a story in early April that year about a woman allegedly pretending to be Dowler who left her number as a point of contact when she applied for a job with a recruitment agency. Police at the time realised that tabloid hacks must have had access to Dowler's voicemail in sourcing the story but saw it as an isolated incident and decided to do nothing, The Guardian reports.
In a statement over the latest mobile phone hacking allegation, News International (which publishes the NotW) said: "We have been co-operating fully with Operation Weeting since our voluntary disclosure in January restarted the investigation into illegal voicemail interception. This particular case is clearly a development of great concern and we will be conducting our own inquiry as a result." ®