The Metropolitan Police has said today it was impossible to conclude how messages from Milly Dowler’s voicemail were deleted, creating “false hope” for her family.
A statement from DCI John MacDonald, a senior officer investigating the potential deletions, was read out before the inquiry today. He said it was possible an illegal intercept had resulted in messages being deleted, but could also have been done automatically by the phone service.
MacDonald said the lack of call data, and the amount of time that has passed since the teenager’s disappearance in 2002, means there is not enough evidence to prove whether or not the News of the World was responsible.
The statement added: “Taking all the relevant information into account it is not possible to state with any certainty whether Milly’s voicemail were or were not deleted.”
As a result of Milly’s voicemail becoming freed up by the deletion of messages, her mother Sally Dowler described a moment of “false hope” in 2002, believing her daughter could still be alive if the messages had been accessed.
The Dowlers had previously said the moment occurred in April or May 2002 but the Met now say they have proved it to be on March 24.
David Sherborne, representing core participant victims, read a short statement from the Dowler family, which thanked MacDonald as his team for investigating the matter.
It continue: “If Surrey Police had prosecuted this activity in 2002 then the position would have been very different and perhaps countless others might also have been avoided having their private messages hacked into by the News of the World.
“Police neglect and deference meant that it took the relentless efforts of one journalist to uncover what the police knew had gone on, and whilst we would never have wished to have been thrust into the middle of this extraordinary scandal on top of what we have already had to deal with as a family, we continue to have faith that his efforts and the efforts of the inquiry and Operation Weeting will have a lasting positive impact.”
The Met said they have been working to discover whether the messages had been accessed before the 26 March 2002, but call data and Surrey Police logs on the missing teenager’s phone did not match up, and a message marked as saved on the service could have been accessed by a third party.
The statement added: “The fact that this message was marked as saved could mean that someone had listened to Milly’s voicemail after her disappearance and prior to the police obtaining access to her voicemail facility later on 26 March 2002.”
MacDonald said he could not rule out that someone had accessed the service and listened to the message during this period, but incomplete call data meant the accuracy of the theory could never be proved.
He added: “In summary we cannot conclusively say whether any voicemails were or were not manually deleted, however there do appear to have been two messages missing that should have been present when Surrey Police carried out their second recorded download of 17 April. It is not known why that happened and it will not now be possible to provide an explanation.
“In light of the NoW revelation that they or a third party has accessed the voicemail it is possible that the messages had previously been listened to by unknown persons and deleted.”
Sherborne suggested a “lethal cocktail of three potential ingredients – the failure of Surrey Police, the decision of the Met to close the 2006 hacking investigation and concealment by News of the World senior staff – was responsible for the uncertainty around how the voicemails were deleted”.
He added: “While some questions stay and may always remain unanswered there are some to which we do know the answer. The News of the World did hack into Milly Dowler’s phone searching for a scoop at a time when she had already been murdered. That fact alone is horrifying enough.
“We also know that the newspaper interfered seriously with the police investigation trying to use the information they had illegally obtained to get an exclusive on Milly’s movements.
“Thirdly this inquiry investigating as it has done the practices, culture and ethics of the press would have happened regardless of the question which arose at the start of the evidence that Sally Dowler’s false hope moment may have been the result of activity of someone at or working for the newspaper.”
Guardian lawyer Gill Phillips said the statement clearly showed Surrey Police had linked the potential deletions to the News of the World in 2002, but admitted her paper had made an error in reporting the cause of the deletions as fact rather than the belief of several people involved in the case.
Journalist Nick Davies had been pursuing the story for years and pushed the hacking scandal into the headlines last year, suggesting the News International title had been responsible for deleting the messages.