REPORTING FROM LONDON -- Journalists from the defunct British tabloid News of the World lied about their relationship with police as well as having hacked into cellphone messages in order to gather information about a missing teenager, a police document sent to Parliament revealed Monday.
The 16-page letter from Surrey police also revealed a close, almost collaborative, relationship between the press and police and offered no reason why Surrey authorities did not investigate the paper for illegal phone hacking in 2002 after the 13-year-old schoolgirl, Milly Dowler, went missing and was later found dead.
Instead, the police appear to have followed a line of inquiry back then that was suggested by misleading information from journalists based on the girl’s hacked phone messages.
The News of the World was a popular British tabloid owned by News Corp. media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who has been subjected to questioning on allegations of illegal phone hacking by a parliamentary committee.
Allegations made public in July of the phone hacking have been at the heart of the scandal that led Murdoch to close the newspaper and have led to ongoing police and parliamentary inquiries into British media ethics and practices.
Dowler was abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered in March 2002. But for a time, her parents believed her to be still alive, based on the deletion of messages on her phone. The police letter casts no light on how the deletions occurred.
Monday’s letter to Parliament included a report on an exchange between Surrey police and News of the World journalists concerning information involving messages left on Dowler’s phone a month after her abduction. The letter shows Surrey police were fully aware that journalists were using illegal phone hacking methods yet failed to report it to the central British police authority, Scotland Yard.
However, it specifies journalists did not obtain Dowler’s number and pin code from police, but from her classmates. Last year, the paper’s legal advisor had speculated during a parliamentary inquiry that the paper had probably obtained the information from police.
The 16-page letter said News of the World journalists informed Surrey police in April 2002, a month after Dowler’s disappearance, that they had listened to messages on Dowler’s phone from “a tearful relative” and “a young boy” and a recruitment agency offering a job. Police first thought the latter was a hoax but later deduced after conducting investigations it was a probable simple error in dialing phone numbers.
The agency later claimed it was harassed by a News of the World journalist claiming to work for the police, asking whether the agency had called Dowler.
“What the letter shows is that several journalists at the News of the World appear to have been involved in hacking into Milly Dowler’s phone,” said John Whittingdale, head of a parliamentary inquiry into the phone hacking scandal, “and that they were doing so because they wanted to pursue the story rather than help the police.”
James Murdoch, son of Rupert Murdoch and chairman of the company that owned the newspaper, told Whittingdale’s inquiry last year that beyond one journalist who served a jail sentence for phone hacking in 2007, there were no other suspected phone hackers on the editorial staff of his papers.
-- Janet Stobart
Photo: News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch arrives at his home in Westminster, London, in July. Credit : Andrew Cowie / AFP/Getty Images