MPs on the Culture Media and Sport Committee concluded that former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks should take responsibility for the “grotesque” behaviour of the paper in its pursuit of a Milly Dowler scoop in 2002.
The reports notes that on 14 April 2002 the News of the World published a story based on a voicemail message left on the phone of the missing schoolgirl.
On 6 September 2011, former News of the World legal manager Tom Crone suggested in testimony to the committee that Surrey Police could have been the source for that story.
In the light of testimony from Surrey Police, the committee summarised its understanding of the circumstances surrounding the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone:
‘After Milly Dowler disappeared, reporters from the News of the World accessed her voicemail. This is clear from paragraph 13 of the Surrey Police evidence, which states that ‘[REDACTED] said that the NOTW was in possession of a recording of the voicemail message’.
‘The News of the World claimed that it had been able to access the voicemail by making enquiries of other children who were Milly Dowler’s friends: when asked why he was so convinced that the message on Milly’s phone was not the work of a hoaxer, a News of the World reporter told the police that ‘the NOTW had got Milly’s mobile phone number and PIN from school children’.”
The report adds: ‘The News of the World made no attempt to conceal from the police the fact that reporters from the paper had accessed Milly Dowler’s voicemail. They made reference to this fact several timesâ€¦.On 12 April 2002, the News of the World tasked someone with impersonating Mrs Dowler in order to try to obtain information from a recruitment agency in connection with Milly’s disappearance.
‘Later a reporter impersonated ‘a friend of Milly Dowler’ in order to try to obtain information from the agency.”
The MPs said: ‘The attempts by the News of the World to get a scoop on Milly Dowler led to a considerable amount of valuable police resource being redirected to the pursuit of false leads.
‘This behaviour is indefensible on its own, but rendered yet more grotesque by the fact that the voicemail seized upon by News of the World reporters as evidence that Milly Dowler was still alive turns out to have been left by accident as a result of a telephone number belonging to a Ghanaian woman called ‘Nana’ being incorrectly written down by a recruitment agency in the North of England.”
Although Brooks (then Wade) was on holiday between 9 and 14 April, the MPs note that contact between the NoW and Surrey Police continued until 20 April.
‘Impersonating members of a missing girl’s family; besieging an employment agency; falsely asserting cooperation with the police; falsely quoting the police; and, according to their own account, obtaining Milly Dowler’s mobile telephone number from her school friends are hardly the actions of a respectful and responsible news outlet.
‘For those actions, and the culture which permitted them, the editor should accept responsibility.”
The reports notes that Crone was on duty the night of 13 April when ‘the News of the World was engaged in producing an article based on information gleaned from the illegal accessing of Milly Dowler’s voicemail”.
It said: ‘He has said that he does not remember the article in question. It is, however, very unlikely that he had no sight of at least the first edition article before he left on the night of 13 April 2002.
‘It is indeed highly probable, in view of his role at the newspaper, that he was responsible for checking the original article’s content, at the very least. Anybody who saw that article will have been aware that the information came from Milly Dowler’s voicemail account.
‘Any competent newspaper lawyer could reasonably have been expected to ask questions about how that information had been obtained. In this context, we are astonished that Tom Crone should have decided to present to the Committee the hypothesis that the information was provided–and subsequently retracted–by the police.”