Did Reporters From News of the World Impede a British Police Investigation?

Did reporters from News of the World impede a British police investigation? asks Charlotte Edwardes.

Reporters from Rupert Murdoch’s now-closed British tabloid News of the World repeatedly lied to police, harassed them, and interfered with their investigation into the disappearance of Milly Dowler, 13, a schoolgirl who was later found murdered, according to a report released by a House of Commons committee in London yesterday.

Files of exchanges between the police in the English county of Surrey and the Murdoch-owned paper also detail how journalists boasted of having obtained Milly’s cellphone number and PIN code from other schoolchildren.

The revelations come less than a week after News International, the part of Murdoch’s media empire that includes his British newspapers, admitted paying 37 high-profile figures millions of dollars in compensation after journalists at News of the World hacked their voicemails looking for newspaper stories. Last night Damian Collins, a committee member and Conservative M.P., said: “Of all the documents and evidence that have been produced by our phone-hacking inquiry, this is the most sickening and exposes the black hearts of those involved in perpetrating and covering up this scandal.”

The police dossier, a series of logs made in 2002, records how reporters brag about having tapes of the messages on Milly’s answer phone. One of these messages, left in error by a recruitment agency that had misdialed Milly’s phone, led the newspaper to believe that the teenager was still alive.

The message was left for someone called “Nana,” applying for work in a factory. Reporters mistakenly became convinced that Nana was in fact “Amanda,” Milly Dowler’s real first name.

What happened next throws into stark relief the mechanics of the now-defunct tabloid: rather than reporting its findings to police and to the Dowler family, the newspaper launched its own parallel investigation into Milly’s whereabouts—alerting the authorities only the night before its “scoop.”

Five News of the World reporters were put onto the story once the newspaper’s reporters had heard the message from the recruitment agency. They tracked down the company responsible for the misdialed call, sending a team of reporters to the firm’s offices, based in the north of England. One reporter even called the agency pretending to be Milly’s mother.

The agency called police to complain, saying that staff arrived “to find hordes of reporters from the News of the World waiting.” An employee said: “We have had a News of the World reporter harassing us today. He says that our agency has recruited Milly as an employee, demanding to know what we know and saying he is working in full co-operation with the police.”

Surrey Police record that “the NoW reporter’s assertion that he was working with the police was untrue.”

Police files go on to show that a NotW reporter told officers that the agency had confirmed that Milly was registered for employment with it. This was, of course, another lie.

The police timeline shows that a NotW journalist directly contacted police on April 13, 2002, the day before the paper published its “scoop,” demanding “to be put in touch with a senior police officer” and claiming “he had what could be significant information.” Then the journalist revealed the newspaper knew that “the recruitment agency had telephoned the mobile phone number of Milly Dowler [leaving a message] with an offer of work.”

When detectives discovered that the message was “a pure coincidence … of no evidential value,” reporters refused to believe them.

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The Murdoch journalists rejected the explanation, saying that “the NoW had got Milly’s cellphone number and PIN from school children.” They also told police that they had heard messages from “a tearful relative” and a “young boy.” Another message apparently said, “It is America, take it or leave it.”

NotW went ahead with its story, claiming that detectives were “intrigued” by their lead. The newspaper quoted from three voicemails in such a way as to give the impression that the police had passed on the information. The story was changed for later editions after complaints from Surrey Police, and ran as a suggestion that the employment-agency message had been a “hoax.”

However, the paper demanded that the police give its reporters more information. One reporter said: “What the Surrey police press officer was telling him was not true and was inconceivable … the NoW was moving its investigation to the north of England, that Milly had been there in person and that she had applied for a job in a factory.” The reporter said that the paper “know this 110%—we are absolutely certain.”

However, the paper’s absolute certainty was based on what appears to have been the illegally obtained information it had retrieved from Milly’s phone and misinterpreted.

Commenting on the report, Conservative Member of Parliament John Whittingdale, the committee chairman, told British television that the paper “appears as if they may have actually interfered or impeded the police in their investigations.”

Rupert Murdoch wrote on Twitter yesterday: “No excuses for phone hacking. No argument.”

A spokesman for News International said: “The interception of Milly Dowler’s phone was shocking and totally unacceptable. The abhorrent nature of what was discovered to have happened at the News of the World ultimately led to its closure last year.”