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Guardian faces Fleet Street backlash over changing story on Milly Dowler message deletions

The Guardian today found itself on the receiving end of widespread press criticism over new evidence that the News of the World was apparently not responsible for the deletion of voicemail messages which gave Milly Dowler's parents false hope the missing girl was alive in 2002.

The Daily Mail devoted a full page in today's paper to coverage of The Sun managing editor Richard Caseby's attack on The Guardian, that paper's coverage of the phone-hacking scandal and the role of the Dowler family's lawyer Mark Lewis.

The Mail quotes extensively from Caseby's stinging criticism at the Joint Committee on Privacy Injunctions yesterday and his claim that The Guardian was guilty of 'sexing up'its phone-hacking coverage.

On Monday the Met Police told the Leveson Inquiry it was 'unlikely'that journalists from the News of the World deleted voicemail messages that gave the family of murdered teenager Milly Dowler 'false hope'that she was still alive.

That was a central claim in The Guardian's story on 5 July story that eventually resulted in the closure of the News of the World and the creation of the Leveson Inquiry into phone-hacking and press standards.

Caseby yesterday told the committee:

Let me be clear: phone hacking by the NoW was wrong and it is rightfully condemned by all.

But The Guardian statement of fact, in I think it was 34 articles, that the paper had given the parents false hope is quite another matter - because that accusation turned what was natural condemnation into a wave of such utter public revulsion that the NoW couldn't really function as a going concern any more and it had to be shut down.

He also claimed:

Mr Rusbridger has shown a pattern of behaviour that poses a serious question over his motivations.

He has an agenda against the popular press, a section of the media he clearly holds in contempt.

Those claims were repeated on page 6 of today's Mail, which also featured a Q&A on 'The unanswered questions over that toxic claim", which noted that The Guardian's original story by Nick Davies and Amelia Hill reported the deletion claim 'as fact without any caveat or attribution".

The Q&A goes on to make repeated references to Mark Lewis being a source for The Guardian's phone-hacking coverage and how he "benefited from the story":

What corroboration was put forward? Davies claims to have verified the information 'directly or indirectly' from the Metropolitan and Surrey Police'. However, the Met categorically denies any knowledge of the allegations. A spokesman said it is not possible any Met officer could have verified the claim because they were not aware of the alleged deletions. Surrey Police have made no statement. Mr Lewis is again cited as a source.

Who benefited from the story? It certainly gave new momentum to The Guardian's campaign to expose the level of phone hacking at the News of the World, but arguably an even bigger beneficiary was solicitor Mark Lewis. Mr Lewis not only representing the Dowlers but is pursuing compensation claims against News International on behalf of dozens of celebrities who claim to be victims. Painting the behaviour of the Sunday tabloid in the worst possible light could only enhance their claims.

Another section of the Q&A says:

Who tipped Davies off that police had disproved his story? A leak inquiry is currently underway but one of the people who would probably have been aware of this crucial development was Mark Lewis.

This morning at the Leveson Inquiry, counsel for the phone-hacking victims David Sherborne said that a reporter claiming to be from the Daily Mail's Ephraim Hardcastle diary column had called Lewis yesterday and asked him whether the Dowler's would be giving back the £3m compensation they received from Rupert Murdoch (£1m of which was donated to charity) in October.

The Sun also got stuck in to The Guardian today, reporting in detail on Richard Caseby's "sexing up" allegations and publishing a second piece on the "three wild claims that turned out to be a false". This second story also referred to Guardian stories that The Sun accessed Gordon Brown's son's medical records and that The Sun doorsstepped a Leveson Inquiry lawyer - both of which turned out to be false.

Meanwhile, Guardian reporter David Leigh has written a piece in today's paper claiming coverage of the Met's statement to the Leveson Inquiry 'has been the subject of sensational coverage, particularly in the News of the World's sister paper, the Times".

In a piece headlined "Milly Dowler and the tabloid: trail that led to phone-hacking story", Leigh also claimed that following Milly's disappearance in March 2002 "detailed evidence piece together by The Guardian" showed "the behaviour of the News of the World at the time helped neither the Dowlers nor the police".

It added:

A senior NoW executive, who later denied to a parliamentary committee all knowledge of illegality, wrote to Surrey police at the time specifically admitting Milly's phone had been hacked.

The senior executive, who the Guardian is not yet naming for legal reasons, demanded on 20 April 2002 that police co-operate with the tabloid's theory that Milly was still alive.

The theory, gleaned from a hacked message misunderstood by the paper, proved to be a waste of police time.

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