Police confirm Milly Dowler's phone was hacked but blame for message deletion unclear

Full details of the phone hacking of murdered school-girl Milly Dowler may never be discovered, the Metropolitan Police Service revealed today.

A witness statement from detective chief inspector John MacDonald, which was read to the Leveson Inquiry today, explained to the court that though there is evidence that the voicemails were hacked, it is unlikely there will be “any further clarity” on the issues.

As a result of incomplete call data provided by the mobile phone company, the Met explained that “a definitive conclusion is not and may never be possible.”

The court heard that Sally Dowler was given a moment of “false hope” on 24 March 2002 when space was freed on her daughter’s mobile phone answering service — the family hoped that Milly was listening to and deleting her messages. MacDonald’s statement explained that Mrs Dowler may have been able access her daughter’s voicemail message box on that day after the mobile phone company automatically deleted voicemails 72 hours after they had been listened to.

MacDonald’s statement added that Mrs Dowler and the Metropolitan Police discussed suspicions that her daughter’s voicemail was being accessed by someone else. The statement explained that Mrs Dowler was reassured that her thoughts were reasonable and possible, given that she was able to leave messages one day, but not the previous day.

The schoolgirl’s voicemail was put into a “preserved state” on 25 March, to prevent any further voicemails being automatically purged. On 26 March, Surrey Police unsuccessfully attempted to record the teenager’s voicemail messages. A message left after this attempt was later “saved”, supporting the theory that someone had accessed Milly’s voicemail and listened to the message.

The statement added: “MPS cannot rule out that someone illegally accessed Milly’s phone on 26 March 2002, however, call data is incomplete,” but the incomplete information meant MPS were “unable to conclusively establish the accuracy of this theory.”

David Sherborne, counsel for the victims, condemned the failure of Surrey Police to investigate phone hacking in 2002, and criticised the MPS’ decision to close hacking investigation and concealment of News of the World, despite uncovering “Aladdin’s cave” of evidence. Sherborne added: “If only Rupert Murdoch had “ripped the place apart” in 2006. But he didn’t.”

Sherborne also read a statement from the Dowler family, in which they thanked DCI John MacDonald and his team for their efforts to get to the bottom of this issue.

The statement added: “If Surrey Police had prosecuted this activity in 2002 then perhaps countless others would have avoided having their messages hacked by News of the World. Police neglect and deference meant it took the relentless efforts of one journalist [Nick Davies – Guardian] to uncover what the police already knew. We continue to have faith that his efforts and the efforts of the inquiry and Operation Weeting will have a lasting positive impact.

Also appearing before the court this morning, DCI Brendan Gilmour from MPS and Operation Glade, described the sensitivities of investigating journalists in the wake of Operation Motorman in 2003 to the court.

Gilmour explained that the MPS discovered that Paul Marshall, a civilian employee, was providing private detectives with information, which eventually ended up in newspapers, from the police national computer.

Gilmour stressed that whilst they were “alive to the sensitivities of investigating journalists” there “wasn’t any fear involved at all” from the MPS.

Seven journalists, identified from the ledgers of private investigator Steve Whittamore, were questioned under caution about how they obtained certain information. Gilmour explained that “quite a few of them said the info was coming from the courts”, and added that all of the journalists said they would not have used Whitammore if they had known the information was being accessed illegally.

In March 2004, the CPS advised that there was insufficient evidence to charge any of the journalists. Gilmour said “I accepted the decisions on the basis that we couldn’t prove guilty knowledge.”

In a relatively short evidence session Russell Middleton, temporary assistant Chief Constable of Devon & Cornwall Police and deputy senior investigating officer on Operation Reproof also appeared at the Inquiry.

Middleton explained to the court that Operation Reproof began as an investigation into blackmail.

He said: “We were open minded as to what we would find”, and added that no evidence suggesting the involvement of a media organisation was found, but journalists were not “out of scope” in this police investigation.

At the start of the day’s hearing, Leveson addressed issues raised by Index on Censorship and other organisations, regarding transparency of the governments status as core participants. He said, that though he respects the organisations, he believed they misunderstood the purposes of redaction.

He added: “Redactions of any sort by the government will be approached in the same way as redactions sought by other core participants.”

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