An Independent Police Complaints Commission investigation has found “collective amnesia” at Surrey Police about why no action was taken against the News of the World in 2002 for phone-hacking.
Knowledge that the voicemail messages of missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler had apparently been accessed by the News of the World was apparently widespread at Surrey Police.
No action was taken, the IPCC said, partly because of an “at times unhealthy relationship between the police and the media”. And partly because the police focus at the time was on finding a missing child and then conducting a murder investigation.
The IPCC investigation into deputy chief constable Craig Denholm and temporary detective superintendent Maria Woodall was prompted by suspicions that they had not been frank with Operation Baronet – an investigation into Surrey Police and phone-hacking.
The report states that “a number of more junior officers in 2002, including Ms Woodall, were frank about their own knowledge of the phone-hacking”. The investigation concluded that she had no case to answer for misconduct.
Denholm was a detective chief superintendent and head of crime for surrey police in 2002. His was officer in overall command of the Milly Dowler investigation Operation Ruby.
He said he had no knowledge of phone-hacking before it was revealed publicly by The Guardian in 2011.
The IPCC report said “the investigation found it hard to understand how he, the officer in charge, could not have been aware of the alleged hacking” but it concluded that it “was unable to find any witness or documentary evidence that contradicted Mr Denholm’s own repeated assertions to the IPCC that he did not know”.
The investigation concluded that there was “insufficient evidence to support a finding of a case to answer for gross misconduct”.
The report by IPCC deputy chair Deborah Glass concludes: "There is no doubt, from our investigation and the evidence gathered by Operation Baronet, that Surrey Police knew in 2002 of the allegation that Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked by the News of the World. It is apparent from the evidence that there was knowledge of this at all levels within the investigation team.
“There is equally no doubt that Surrey Police did nothing to investigate it; nobody was arrested or charged in relation to the alleged interception of those messages either in 2002 or subsequently, until the Operation Weeting arrests in 2011.
“Phone-hacking was a crime in 2002 and it should have been investigated. Our investigation has heard from officers and former officers at Surrey Police who have expressed surprise and dismay that this was not done.
“We have not been able to uncover any evidence, in documentation or witness statements, of why and by whom that decision was made: former senior officers in particular appear to have been afflicted by a form of collective amnesia about this. That is perhaps not surprising, given the events of 2011 and the public outcry that the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone produced.
“There were two elements in play here. One was the at times unhealthy relationship between the police and the media, exposed in the Leveson inquiry. One officer told the IPCC it was in order to 'keep the media onside'. This is plausible; a former senior officer from Surrey Police commented that the press was 'untouchable and all powerful'.
"The other is the fact that in 2002 Surrey Police were involved in a major missing persons, later murder, enquiry, and at the time they became aware of the phone hacking their focus was on finding Milly Dowler, then bringing her killer to justice, rather than on the illegal interception activities of the News of the World.
"However, it is more surprising that alarm bells do not appear to have rung and connections made in 2007, when two people connected with the News of the World pleaded guilty to phone hacking offences, or later, in 2009/10, when details began emerging in the public domain of further phone hacking activity. In view of the widespread knowledge uncovered in this investigation, we consider that it is scarcely credible that no one connected to the Milly Dowler investigation recognised the relevance and importance of the knowledge that Surrey Police had in 2002, before this information was disclosed by Operation Weeting.
"We will never know what would have happened had Surrey Police carried out an investigation into the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone in 2002. We know from evidence to subsequent inquiries that the law in this area was untested. But the alleged illegal act should have been acted upon, if not in 2002 then later, once the News of the World’s widespread use of phone hacking became a matter of public knowledge and concern. Surrey Police has apologised for their failure to the Dowler family – and they were right to do so."