The Milly Dowler murder undoubtedly brought out the very worst in British journalism.
Not only does it appear that a detective working for the News of the World hacked the phone messages of the murdered 13-yearold when police had yet to find her body in 2002.
But in June this year, the ‘avalanche’of publicity around the conviction of Levi Bellfield for Milly’s murder led to a second charge relating to the attempted kidnapping of an 11-year-old girl being dropped.
However, amid the justifiable public outrage – it should not be forgotten that Bellfield was convicted of the Surrey schoolgirl’s murder largely thanks to the actions of a tabloid newspaper.
As the newspaper industry braces itself for a tougher regulatory climate, it should also be remembered that the vital information which placed Bellfield at the scene of the Milly Dowler murder was only obtained through use of subterfuge and dissembling in the best investigatory tradition of the UK tabloid press.
Mirror journalist David Collins, 29, was still a trainee when he started the investigation which would lead to him bagging vital evidence which linked Bellfield to the Milly Dowler killing.
Bellfield was jailed in February 2008 after being found guilty of murdering Marsha McDonnell, 19, in Hampton, south west London, in 2003 and Amelie Delagrange, 22, in August 2004 in Twickenham, also south west London.
He was also convicted of the attempted murder of Kate Sheedy, 18, in Isleworth, west London.
When Collins picked up the story, Bellfield was already the prime suspect in the Dowler case – he lived just a few hundred yards away from the Dowler family in Walton-on- Thames.
Setting up the interview
Collins made contact with Bellfield after winning the trust of one of his friends and he began passing messages to the killer.
The idea of an interview came from Bellfield himself, who was apparently outraged at a story in the Daily Mirror in which one of his daughters – Bobby – spoke of her hatred for her father.
Collins said that he jumped at the chance and agreed to write Bellfield a letter in which he set out how he was keen to get his side of the story across.
By this stage police had already released CCTV footage of a Red Daewoo car pulling out on to the street where Milly disappeared and appealed for information. Every time police had tried to interview Bellfield he refused to say anything.
Collins says: ‘That was the thing I wanted to speak to him about. A newspaper like the Mirror wasn’t really interested in an interview with a serial killer about how he didn’t kill Amelie and Marsha, you’d take the view of course he’s going to say that.”
Bellfield wrote back and Collins ended up meeting Bellfield’s brother one evening on a housing estate in south west London.
‘I remember turning up in the car park, it was late at night and it was raining and it was just this little council flat. He told me some of his friends were there as well. His family hate journalists because of all the stuff that has gone before – so I was pretty nervous about going in their on my own.
“I rang a colleague, reporter Andy Gregory – he agreed he would ring me within 15 minutes of going into the address. I would have a code word, so that he knew I was ok.”
‘I was basically using subterfuge all the way through’
The meeting went well and the next day Collins went to an address in West Drayton, near Heathrow in west London, to meet the whole Bellfield family.
Collins says: ‘I spent the whole day with them . I was talking about what it was I wanted to do. I was basically using subterfuge all the way through.
‘It was the only way to do it, if I’d said what I was really doing there’s no way I would have got near him.
I was saying I wanted to hear what he had to say, which was true. What they didn’t know was I wanted to get something connecting him to Milly.”
Early in the evening Collins was about to leave, when Bellfield’s brother said: ‘I’ll tell Levi you were hereâ€¦He usually rings at about 7pm for a chat .”
This surprising news meant Collins could have the chance to speak to Bellfield direct.
He asked the family if that would be ok, and they said yes. During that first conversation Collins mainly asked Bellfield about his existing murder convictions: ‘He was talking about how he was set up by the police and didn’t do it and had all these bizarre theories about why he didn’t kill these girls.”
Collins brought up Milly Dowler at the end of the call, but the family got suspicious so he did not push it but arranged to return and interview Bellfield again.
When Collins returned the following day, the Bellfield family had a surprise for him.
‘They gave me a piece of paper which the family had written out and I had to sign. It said: ‘I am only working in Levi Bellfield’s best interests. I am not working with the police. I am prepared to be a witness for the defence.’
‘I didn’t have time to ring the newsdesk and get advice from the legal team. I knew he was going to ring in about 10 or 15 minutes so I knew I had to sign it or walk out.
I signed the piece of paper and then the mum Jean who’s a really strong personality, the matriarch of the whole family, was a lot more happy. The family started to trust me.
‘That second interview was mostly about Milly Dowler. There was 10 questions I’d printed out and asked them one by one. Where were you on the day? Why did you leave your girlfriend’s flat in the middle of the night? Why did you burn your bed the next day.
‘All the things which had come up linking him to Milly’s killing. He had an excuse for every single one.
‘Pinning him down on the day was really difficult but he suggested he was with his mum all day. I was getting near the end of the interview and I knew I hadn’t got much so I asked the question about the red Daewoo car.
‘The police knew that Bellfield’s girlfriend owned that same model. I said that a red Daewoo car was pulling out on to Station Road 20 minutes before Milly disappeared and it looks the same as your partner’s.
‘He admitted to me that he was driving the car at the time because he had given a friend his van which he normally used. He was doing DIY at a flat and he was using the Daewoo to transport tools around.
‘Basically I knew that in that one very short two-minute section of the interview he had put himself on the crime scene.”
Because of the use of subterfuge, and the declaration Collins had signed, the story took three weeks to get past the Mirror lawyers. It appeared on the Daily Mirror front page in April 2009.
Some weeks later Collins handed over his interview tapes to Surrey Police and they would form a key part of the Crown Prosecution Service’s evidence against Bellfield.
After that first front page story, Collins was called up by Bellfield’s brother demanding the return of some photos and asking how he could have betrayed his brother.
Collins says: ‘I just said that I think he killed Milly and you need to accept that and move on.’Collins was glued to the BBC News website as the jury retired to reach its verdict in late June this year and says he was delighted when the news came in that Bellfield had been found guilty of the Dowler murder.
Editor Richard Wallace came out of his office and asked ‘where’s Columbo?’before shaking Collins by the hand.
For Collins, the key secret to getting the Bellfield story was keeping his patience throughout the three-month process: ‘I knew that I had an in with Bellfield so there was no need to rush it.”
Asked about how he felt about the story in the light of the recent furore over phone-hacking and the News of the World, Collins says: ‘It’s tough being a tabloid journalist at the moment because the reputation of tabloid journalism is so low, but people forget tabloids do a lot of good.
‘They do a lot of campaigns. It’s bad that one newspaper, the News of the World, has tarnished everyone else. It’s a strange time to be a journalist at the moment. We’ve got to try and restore public faith in journalism.”
- To contact the Press Gazette newsdesk call 020 7936 6433 or email firstname.lastname@example.org