The publisher of the Daily Mail has defended the actions of a journalist who asked the solicitor for the Dowler family, Mark Lewis, whether the family would be returning their £3m privacy settlement with News International.
It came after a the barrister for phone-hacking victims, David Sherborne, told the Leveson Inquiry this morning that Lewis had received a phone call from a reporter on the Daily Mail's Ephraim Hardcastle diary column who allegedly asked him 'will the Dowlers be giving their money back?"
This was a reference to the news this week that the Met Police felt it was unlikely that a journalist from the News of the World deleted the messages on Milly Dowler's phone which gave her parents 'false hope' she was still alive.
In October the Dowlers received a £3m compensation settlement from News Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch, including £1m which was donated to charity.
'Mr Lewis's reaction was understandably to question the moral compass of this journalist," added Sherborne.
Responding to the disclosure this afternoon, the Daily Mail said this was a 'perfectly legitimate journalistic inquiry".
A spokesperson for Associated Newspapers said: 'This is an utterly synthetic story. The Daily Mail categorically refutes Mark Lewis's allegation that it has attacked the Dowler family.
'A reporter from the Ephraim Hardcastle column contacted Mr Lewis in his capacity as the Dowler solicitor following evidence to the Leveson Inquiry that the News of the World had not deleted Milly Dowler's voicemails.
'This was a perfectly legitimate journalistic inquiry. The Mail did not publish a story based on the phone call and made no attempt to contact the Dowlers directly.
'Mr Lewis's decision to publicise this – subjecting the Dowlers to further exposure – may lead some to conclude that he is more interested in promoting his own agenda than protecting his clients."