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Phone hacking testimony raises doubts about investigator's role

December 12, 2011 |  1:01 pm

Britain-hacking: Neville Thurlbeck

REPORTING FROM LONDON -- The cellphone of a teenage kidnapping victim was hacked and messages deleted before a private investigator was commissioned by a tabloid to work on the story of her disappearance, a police attorney told a panel looking into abuses by Britain’s media Monday.

The statement raised questions about one of the more emotional accusations against the now-defunct News of the World: that the tabloid’s investigator deleted messages from the teen’s phone, giving her parent’s false hope that the slain 13-year-old was still alive.

Neil Garnham, an attorney representing Scotland Yard, told the panel headed by senior Judge Brian Leveson that the Surrey police force, which investigated the abduction and murder of Milly Dowler in March 2002, disclosed that her phone messages were hacked between March 21 and 24 of that year. Those dates came after her disappearance but before Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator later accused of hacking and deleting messages, was commissioned by News of the World to help its reporters on the story.

March 24 was the day Sally Dowler discovered her daughter’s messages had been listened to and deleted, leading her to believe the teen was still alive. Garnham conceded that someone on the News of the World other than Mulcaire might have deleted messages. But he said that it was more likely the messages were deleted automatically.

The News of the World had long faced allegations of hacking into the phones of celebrities and Britain’s royal household. But the accusations that it hacked into the teen's phone, first reported by the Guardian in July, brought a firestorm of public condemnation that led media mogul Rupert Murdoch to close down the tabloid.

The Guardian released a statement Saturday saying that there was still abundant evidence that the News of the World had committed widespread phone hacking. The scandal has led to the arrest of at least 18 executives and journalists from News International, the British section of Murdoch’s News Corp. Several high-profile police officers have also resigned.

Nick Davies, the Guardian journalist who wrote the July 4 story, told Sky News on Monday that the News of the World still would not have survived had the latest revelation about the deletions been known earlier.

The accusations that the tabloid had deleted the phone messages “did have an emotional impact, but it wasn’t the whole story. … It’s delusional to try to pretend that the new evidence on this one element of one story would’ve changed the outcome. I’m afraid that’s mischief-making.”

News of the World journalists also appeared before the panel Monday, seeking to explain and justify their undercover methods to investigate stories that included unmasking of drug dealers, pedophiles and arms dealers as well as more salacious “kiss and tell” stories on celebrities’ extramarital affairs or drug-taking habits.

Former News of the World reporter Mazher Mahmood told of undercover and sometimes illegal methods, such as buying child pornography to uncover pedophiles. Among successful disguises was his role as an Arab sheik duping Sarah Ferguson, the divorced wife of Prince Andrew, into accepting a hefty bribe for introducing him to high-profile contacts as part of a fake oil deal.

More recently through hidden microphones he uncovered a match-fixing scandal among top level Pakistani cricketers.

Former chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck told the panel that looking into the private lives of celebrities cost large amounts of time and money. He spent five months pursuing allegations that soccer player David Beckham had an extramarital affair with his assistant, Rebecca Loos.

He told the panel that the paper eventually paid Loos “a six-figure sum” for the report.

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Photo: Neville Thurlbeck, former chief reporter of the News of the World newspaper, leaves the Royal Courts of Justice after testifying Monday before the Leveson inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press in Britain. Credit: Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images

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