Amanda ‘Milly’ Dowler, aged thirteen, disappeared on the evening of 21 March 2002. Shortly before 13 April, with the police hunt at its height, the News of the World hacked her mobile phone. She had by then been murdered.
Reporters listened to at least four voicemail messages, one of which they transcribed as follows [the redactions are by Surrey Police]: ‘Hello Mandy. This is [REDACTED] from [REDACTED] Recruitment Agency. We are ringing because we have interviews starting today at [REDACTED]. Call back on [REDACTED]. Thanks, bye bye.’ The paper took this to mean that Milly was alive and, using the name ‘Mandy’, seeking work in the Midlands, where the agency was based. It sent reporters to the agency to question staff, telling them, according to the Surrey Police account, that they (the reporters) were working ‘in full cooperation’ with the police. The agency staff then called Surrey Police to check this and the police in turn called the News of the World to find out what was going on. The paper stated bluntly that it had acquired its information from Milly’s phone and gave detectives its transcript of the message. And despite appeals from the police – and warnings that the message might well have been the work of a hoaxer – the paper reported its supposed angle on the Dowler story in that weekend’s edition.
Days later the paper was in touch with Surrey Police again, now telling them it was convinced Milly was looking for factory work in the north of England, and indeed the News of the World actually staked out one factory. By now detectives had themselves accessed Milly’s voicemails (legally) and they formed the view that the message was intended for someone called ‘Nana’ rather than ‘Mandy’. Inquiries established that the recruitment agency had a client called Nana, that Milly Dowler’s number had by pure chance been entered in their records in mistake for the correct number, and that therefore the message on Milly’s phone had been meant for someone else. Informed of all this, the News of the World refused to believe it.
It was on the afternoon of Monday 4 July that the Guardian revealed online that the News of the World had hacked the phone of murdered teenager Milly Dowler. There was instant and widespread horror and the story was soon dominating the television and radio bulletins. That evening, however, the editors of most of the national daily newspapers made a striking choice. Usually they will embrace any story that is firing up the emotions of their readers, but not this time. The Sun, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Star and the Daily Express all judged that this outrage against a dead child and her bereaved family did not even merit a paragraph on the front page. The Daily Mail and The Times, meanwhile, pushed the story down to second or third billing, the Mail placing its report in the shadow of a much bigger headline about tax and the elderly. Dowler may have been the lead story for the Daily Telegraph, the Independent and, naturally, the Guardian, but significantly those three account for less than one eighth of daily newspaper readership.