Guardian Dowler story "chronically and potentially fatally" damaged press-police relations

The associate editor (news) of the Sunday Express has said a Guardian story from July 2011 alleging the News of the World had deleted voicemail messages on murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s phone “chronically and potentially fatally” damaged press-police relations.

James Murray  told the Leveson Inquiry that the article, which alleged the tabloid had deleted messages on the abducted teenager’s phone, giving her family false hope that she was alive and listening to her voicemail, had an “enormous impact” throughout the industry.

“We spent an enormous amount of time building up relations with Surrey police, meeting them for briefings, having coffee, gaining their trust,” he said. “All that trust was blown out of the water.”

He added that normal lines of communication have since been damaged, noting later: “Everyone’s cautious, everyone’s frightened.”

Last December the Metropolitan police announced that the tabloid may not have deleted Dowler’s voicemails, though it remains uncontested that the paper hacked her phone.

In response to this morning’s revelation that the News of the World had employed their own surveillance team to identify suspects and the deployed Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) team in the 2006 Ipswich murders inquiry, Murray warned against journalists acting as detectives. “Playing an amateur detective can get you into all sorts of trouble and that’s not what we’re about,” he said.

He added that the now defunct tabloid was a “lone wolf” in the field of surveillance, saying it had been mentioned the paper had resources to employ ex-detectives, and that he could not think of another mainstream newspaper that had “such a well-organised enterprise.”

On recommendations for press-police relations, Murray argued that issuing written guidelines would be “frankly ridiculous”, though he said a “broad-based framework” might be helpful.

Speaking earlier today, John Twomey, chair of the Crime Reporters Association and crime correspondent at the Daily Express, also warned against what he termed a “freezing effect” if all contact between reporters and journalists were to be recorded.

“Officers would be less likely to talk to you,” he said. “Some officers may just cease contact with you completely.”

Daily Star reporter Jerry Lawton also expressed his concern that the Inquiry may have impacted on the relationship between reporters and police forces, noting that lines of communication had “been shut down all over the place.”

“My concern in the fall-out from phone hacking and this series of inquiries is that a wedge will be driven between the police and press that will restrict the level of trust and guidance, therefore making accurate reporting more difficult,” Lawton wrote in his witness statement.

The Inquiry continues tomorrow, with further evidence from crime reporters, staff from West Midlands Police and Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe of the Metropolitan police.

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