The Met today said there as no evidence that the News of the World was responsible for the voicemail deletions that gave the Dowler family false hope their daughter was still alive.
An investigation by the force concluded that because there was only an incomplete set of call data in relation to Milly’s phone ‘it’s not possible to state with any certainty’of Milly’s voicemails were deleted manually or automatically.
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It was one of the central and most shocking allegations made in a Guardian story on 5 July 2010 revealing the paper had hacked Milly’s phone after she went missing in 2002, when the paper stated as fact: “The messages were deleted by journalists in the first few days after Milly’s disappearance in order to free up space for more messages. As a result friends and relatives of Milly concluded wrongly that she might still be alive.’
Today the Met said based on call data and logs from Surrey Police’s family liaison officer the ‘false hope’moment occurred on 24 March 2002 three days after Milly went missing. It also said that there was no evidence that anyone from the News of the World tried to access her messages before 26 March.
The investigation was carried out by the Met’s DCI MacDonald and his findings were read out at the Leveson Inquiry this morning. He found that “taking all the relevant information into account, it’s not possible to state with any certainty whether Milly Dowler’s voicemails were or were not deleted”.
When Surrey Police conducted a download of Milly’s messages on 17 April there are believed to have been two messages that were missing.
But MacDonald added: “When trying to interpret the evidence and establish what did or didn’t occur it’s necessary to consider the lack of a complete set of call data.
‘Given this situation, while a reasonable understanding of the issues and events has been developed as a result of the MPS investigation, reaching a definitive conclusion is not, and may never be, possible.”
The Guardian has prepared its own timeline for the inquiry which it said reflected its understanding of the relevant events but this is disputed by both the Met and Surrey Police.
But the head of legal for The Guardian, Gill Phillips, noted that MacDonald’s statement made clear there was no dispute over the fact the NoW hacked into the voice messages of Dowler after she disappeared in March 2002.
She said: ‘The Guardian’s story of 4 July 2011 was based on multiple sources and their state of knowledge at the time.
‘Our error – as we acknowledged and corrected last December – was to have written about the cause of the deletions as a fact rather than as the belief of several people involved in the case.
‘We regret that. After five more months of intensive inquiry, the police have found that the passage of time and the loss of evidence means that ‘reaching a definitive conclusion is not and may never be possible’.”
A lawyer acting for News International said: ‘NI would like to take this opportunity to repeat its apology to the Dowler family for the fact that Milly Dowler’s voicemail messages were accessed by the NoW.
He added that it was the view of the MPS that ‘there is no evidence that any NoW journalist attempted to access Milly Dowler’s voicemail messages prior to the awful moment of false hope described by Mr and Mrs Dowler in their evidence to this inquiry, and that this moment of false hope resulted from the voicemail messages dropping off the voicemail message storage system after 72 hours”.
A statement from the Dowler family said there remained ‘unanswered questions’in the case and noted if Surrey police had taken action at the time ‘countless others’would have avoided being hacked by the newspaper.
They also paid tribute to the efforts of Davies, adding: ‘Police neglect and dereference meant that it took the relentless efforts of one journalist to uncover what the police knew had gone on, and whilst we would never have wished to have been thrust into the middle of this extraordinary scandal on top of what we have already had to deal with as a family, we continue to have faith that his efforts, and the efforts of the inquiry and Operation Weeting, will have a lasting and positive impact.’