News Corp.’s British tabloid News of the World made headlines in recent months after it was revealed that the paper hired private detectives to hack into people's private voicemails, leading to several arrests.
Now, Scotland Yard is investigating accusations that the News of the World hacked into the cellphone voicemail of murdered British girl Milly Dowler after she went missing in March 2002, reports the Guardian.
It has also been disclosed that, in an unrelated case, police have contacted Colin Stagg, the man wrongly accused of killing Rachel Nickell, to inform him that News of the World may have hacked his phone as well.
Deleting a Missing Girl's Voicemails
In the Dowling case, detectives found evidence of the hacking among the collection of 11,000 notes belonging to Glen Mulcaire, a private investigator previously jailed for hacking into voicemails for the News of the World. People involved in the inquiry said that journalists working for the tabloid hacked into Dowler’s phone and intercepted her voicemails shortly after her disappearance, then deleted them to free up space. As a result, Dowler’s friends and relatives thought wrongly that she might still be alive. Police fear that key evidence could have been destroyed along with the voicemails.
According to the Guardian, the News of the World made no effort to conceal its hacking at the time, and the police were completely aware of it. However, the detectives didn’t take any action against the newspaper “partly because their main focus was to find the missing schoolgirl and partly because this was only one example of tabloid misbehaviour,” says the Guardian.
The investigation has put intense focus on Rebekah Brooks, the editor of the paper at the time (and now CEO of its owner, News International, the U.K. newspaper division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.), as well as Andy Coulson, the then-deputy editor, who resigned as Prime Minister David Cameron’s media adviser last January due to his connection with the tabloid’s various other scandals.
British politicians have also reacted strongly to the affair. U.K. Labour leader Ed Miliband asked Brooks to “consider her position” and called for a public inquiry into the scandal, which he described as “one of the darkest days in British journalism.” Meanwhile, Prime Minister Cameron said of the allegations: “If they are true, this is a truly dreadful act and a truly dreadful situation,” and added that police “should pursue this in the most vigorous way that they can in order to get to the truth of what happened.”
The Dowlers’ family lawyer, Mark Lewis, also issued a statement saying, “It is distress heaped upon tragedy to learn that the News of the World had no humanity at such a terrible time."
The statement continued: “The fact that [News of the World journalists] were prepared to act in such a heinous way that could have jeopardised the police investigation and give them false hope is despicable.”
The Dowler family is now pursuing a damages claim against the tabloid.
The Rachel Nickell Murder
Police have also recently informed Colin Stagg, the man who was wrongly accused of the 1992 murder of Rachel Nickell on Wimbledon Common, that he too was a victim of phone hacking by the News of the World.
Police say they found Stagg's phone number and personal details among documents seized from Mulcaire, the private investigator, during a 2006 raid on his home in south London.
Stagg was arrested and charged with Nickell's murder in 1993 and acquitted the following year. He received £706,000 compensation after the police operation. Stagg was the subject of intense media interest around the time of his arrest and for many years—even after he was cleared of the crime.
He told London's Evening Standard: "I felt sick and angry when the police first contacted me about suspected hacking. It was this kind of media behavior that made me a pariah in the public's mind."
Stagg added that he is likely to pursue legal action against the News of the World. "I endured years of abuse because the press thought there was open season on me— and I didn't have the means to fight back. Now I do," he said. "I have instructed my solicitor to pursue this aggressively, through the courts if necessary."