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A Year On: How Milly Dowler Shook the World, and Ended a Media Dynasty: FOTHOM XLIV

It’s hard to believe, but at 4pm BST today it will be exactly a year since Nick Davies and Amelia Hill published online a leak from Operation Weeting, the newly recreated (third) investigation into phone hacking, and revealed that the News of the World had hacked the phone of a missing 13 year old schoolgirl, who was found dead six months later, murdered by Levi Bellfield.

That headline changed the political scene here in the UK. Within days the News of the World had closed, and New Corp were forced to withdraw their takeover bid for Britain’s most lucrative broadcaster, BSkyB. Within two weeks James and Rupert Murdoch were summoned to appear before a Parliamentary select committee, and David Cameron was forced to set up the Leveson Inquiry.

Over the next year, the hacking scandal expanding to a corruption and bribery scandal at the News of the World’s sister paper, the best selling Sun. Over 50 people have now been arrested. An internal News Corp inquiry, the MSC – set up under pressure from the FBI, SEC and DOJ – has now handed over thousands of emails suggesting bribery of public officials. The scandal expanded to include allegations of TV piracy at News Corp’s pay-TV encryption services in Australia, the UK, Italy and the US.

But more than anything, for the UK, the Leveson Inquiry has shone a light into the dark corners of the political media class, and revealed such extensive back door lobbying between the Murdochs and the last five prime ministers, that it was almost like discovering a state within a state. And of course, with Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson and James Murdoch meeting virtually every day with David Cameron, George Osborne and Jeremy Hunt, the convergence over the last few years has been almost seamless. As a senior News International journalist expressed it to me:

The Court of Cameron and the Court of Murdoch have become almost totally enmeshed.

This last year has been an amazing journey for our country, and for me personally, as I became inextricably caught up in the coverage of the affair. My book, which explores those 14 days in July which ended a media dynasty – and the 50 years leading up to it – is in the final stages and due for publication at the end of the month.

Below I might share some of the book, particularly the reality of the Milly Dowler story, but mainly this diary is to share YOUR memories, to hear your thoughts about this momentous year.

This is from an unedited, unproofed section of Chapter One; The Fall of the House of Murdoch

Accessing mobile voicemail messages without permission has been illegal in the UK since the Computer Misuse Act 1990, which carries a two-year prison sentence as a maximum penalty and has no ‘public interest’ defence. However, throughout the early nineties when mobile phones became ubiquitous, several newspaper scoops were derived from some kind of interception and recording of analogue phone signals. The two most famous are a six-minute bedtime ‘Tampon’ conversation between Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles on a mobile phone (recorded December 18 1989 and published by the Sunday Mirror and the Sunday People in 1993) and the Squidgygate tape of a private conversation between Princess Diana and a close friend (published by the Sun in 1992).

In 2000 the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) made intercepting a message while ‘in the course of transmission’ illegal. Around this time mobile telephony shifted from analogue to digital and intercepting encrypted signals required expensive technology, generally only available to the security services. However, a back door was left open: voicemails could be accessed remotely through a pin number. Much like the default admin passwords left on computers in the eighties, these pins were often left unchanged from their defaults. One of the first to discover this loophole was Steve Nott who alerted various newspapers to the security breach. As he claimed under oath to the Leveson Inquiry, the newspapers decided to use the security breach for ‘their own purposes’ rather than publish the story. Even phone users who changed their pin codes were still vulnerable to simple password attacks, with data such as dates of birth culled from other sources. If that failed, a bit of social engineering could solve the problem; dedicated investigators could ring the mobile phone service provider, either pretending to be the customer or an employee, and get the pin code set to default.

On the evening of 21 March 2002 after their thirteen-year-old daughter Milly failed to return from school, Bob and Sally Dowler rang the police. Within twenty-four hours a nationwide search for Milly was launched, and soon videos and photos of the missing teenager were broadcast on prime-time television. The News of the World which, under the editorship of Rebekah Brooks and her deputy editor Andy Coulson, had built a reputation for covering child murders, began a furious campaign.

Three weeks after Milly’s disappearance, in the first edition of NoW on Sunday April 14th, a major story by-lined by Robert Kellaway, has some interesting details.

To any casual reader the details of the messages, not only their content, timing and more importantly the tone of the callers, indicate that these have been listened to by the journalist. It’s not even concealed. There’s no suggestion of a police source. The News of the World, arrogating command of the investigation and trying to sell up a scoop, seems to know more about Milly than the police.

We now know that Milly was already dead, murdered by Levi Bellfield and dumped in Hampshire woodland where her body would not be found for two years.

We also know now that senior editors of the News of the World were at that time ‘110 per cent’ convinced they knew where Milly was on the basis of hacking her voicemail. One of these was a message from a ‘recruitment caller’ offering a job and (according to the Wall Street Journal) the Sunday paper had sent out eight reporters and photographers to stake out an ink-cartridge factory in Epson for three days. When Milly failed to turn up, and investigations proved that Milly wasn’t even on the factory’s books, the News of the World – stumped for any story – came up with a new scandal: that some hoax caller had rung the factory impersonating a recruitment agency.

Later editions of the News of the World changed the original story, removing some of the more incriminating detail, adding some minimal fact checking. The recruitment company wasn’t a hoax caller, they’d just come up with the wrong number for a client seeking work. But still the tabloid persisted in churning the non-story into a lurid smear: someone mentally disturbed had now called the recruitment agent impersonating Milly.

The hunt for missing Milly Dowler took a shocking twist last night when it emerged a deranged woman has been posing as the missing youngster.

Police believe the sick hoaxer called into a recruitment agency pretending to be Milly.

Staff at the Midlands bureau failed to recognise the name as that of the missing girl and took the woman on their books.

It is thought the hoaxer even gave the agency Milly’s real mobile phone number. Police believe she may have got it by gaining the trust of people who knew the schoolgirl.

The agency used the number to contact Milly, real name Amanda, when a job vacancy arose and left a message on her voicemail AFTER the 13-year-old vanished at 4pm on March 21.

It was on March 27, six days after Milly went missing in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey that the employment agency appears to have phoned her mobile.

News is a rough draft of history and a breaking story is like a series of jotted notes, but this scribbled nonsense covers old errors with new: the paper had missed the simple explanation of a wrong number call. A police investigation of this would have quickly discounted the red herring. But the News of the World wanted its sensational exclusive and didn’t want to divulge its illegal source, so clumsily tried to cover its tracks. It would continue to pepper its pages with useless speculation for the next two weeks. When their persistent interference with a missing person investigation failed, and they were eventually ignored by Surrey Police, the newspaper sought retribution by suggesting in print the investigating officers were incompetent.

In the past, tabloid newspapers have been accused of acting like judge and jury during criminal trials, but here we have them acting like the leading investigators during a major murder inquiry (the concatenation of errors, followed by bluster and threats toward the police are forensically documented by Tim Ireland on his Bloggerheads site). Most disturbingly, the paper used its access to illegal information to encourage Milly’s parents that she was still alive and even pressure them into delivering an exclusive interview.

For those who have eyes to see, it’s clear that even ten years ago the Sunday tabloid considered itself better than the police and above the law, which of course they were in more ways than one. It also must have been blindingly obvious to any journalist, police officer or senior News International management at the time that Milly’s voicemail had been hacked by News of the World.

snip about 20 pages of the non-reporting of this story over 9 years

How a family’s grief over their missing daughter could become the stuff of ‘entertainment’ is the subject of the next chapter, but forgetting the near obscene outcome, depraved motives, or illegal means of the News of The World’s hacking, the inescapable fact is that journalists will always intrude and that the reality for any individual involved in a big story will nearly always be a form of misrepresentation and intrusion – at least on a personal emotional level.

There has always been, and always will be, an element of callousness in journalistic investigation. To paraphrase one the first great British press barons, Lord Northcliffe, news is public information which usually someone wants to keep private. Depending on the story, this may involve deceiving witnesses or targets, or indeed threatening them with non-accuracy if they don’t disclose. Such were the tactics of Woodward and Bernstein, and any legitimate journalist covering a big important story will tell you this. Most journalists protect their sources for reasons of trust, loyalty and continued information, but ultimately you’re just a piece in a jigsaw – a ‘source’ – and if you’re more than that, then the journalism is compromised. The individual has to be subordinate to politics in this instance. In the words of Peter Mandelson, ‘You can be friendly with journalists, but journalists are never your friends.’ If a story is in the public interest then the private relationship is always secondary.

The clear difference between the News of the World and the investigative discoveries of the Washington Post in the seventies, the Guardian in the nineties, or indeed the Daily Telegraph when it revealed the scandal of MPs’ expenses, is precisely this justification of a wider public interest: the bigger political picture is the exposure of unseen corruption and – eventually – an assurance of more accuracy and transparency in public life.

Just looking at the three different versions of the News of the World’s coverage of Milly Dowler on 14 April 2002, you can see very little public interest in terms of informing the public, or indeed helping the police. Instead there are several degrees of obfuscation and obstruction. Not only did News of the World journalists (ineptly) try to conceal the hacking of Milly’s phone, they consistently lied to witnesses about their identities. Having got the initial story of a runaway wrong, they first blamed the recruitment agency and then whoever called the recruitment agency as a ‘sick hoax’. This is not ground-breaking journalism. This is clumsy and bullying covering of tracks.

The same habits of intrusion, deception and bullying counter accusation would characterise the attitude of many News International journalists for the next decade. Right up to the Leveson Inquiry in 2012, News of the World’s former senior reporter Neville Thurlbeck suggested – until refuted by a Surrey Constabulary investigation – that the Surrey police had given his paper access to the Dowler messages.

Two senior officers in charge of the original missing person probe at the time – one of whom is now the deputy chief constable of Surrey Police – were placed under investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) in June 2012 for allegedly failing to explore the News of the World’s blatant phone hacking.

In this instance of phone hacking the contrast with Watergate journalism couldn’t be clearer. During Watergate the Nixon administration blocked Woodward and Bernstein wherever they went. Faced with a wall of silence from those in power, the two American journalists had to occasionally dissemble and divert to secure a bigger story in the public interest. But behind the walls of fortress Wapping, the News of the World journalists pulled rank and power, dissembling and diverting in order to conceal the bigger story from the public interest.

The book is partly about the decline of the press, the hollowing out of the main stream media, and of course gives big thanks to my fellow Mooq.

As an example of the great collaboration I’ve had on Kos here’s a version of Ceebs database on ‘Leveson Forgetfulness’ which forms appendix One of the book.

Just so you know, the median amnesia of politicians and senior News International execs in module 3 of the Leveson Inquiry was around 4 per cent

For the victims of the press in module 1, the median amnesia was 0.3 per cent


  1. virginislandsguy

    were my “Yeah, baby!” moment. Until then, because of the heavy hitter players involved, I thought this hacking scandal would simmer on the margins and then die away. But the nature of NOTWs actions with Milly were beyond the Pale and caught the attention and anger of the British public. There was no way they were going to put this genie back in the bottle.

    An interesting post-mortem will be which actors kept this issue alive at each juncture when the power players could have buried it with endless and pointless commissions. Your contributions will have a place there.

    And here we are, one year later and I am impatiently waiting for my copy of your e-book! The only question is how can I get you to digitally autograph my copy?

  2. fogiv

    …or the beginning of the begee.  I don’t know.  What I do know, or at least believe, is that many of our nation’s biggest problems, shit, the world’s even can, be blamed in part on the decay and purposeful degeneration of the fourth estate.  Thanks Rupert, thanks a fucking lot.

    …wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.

    –Thomas Jefferson

    You’ve done a tremendous bit of work with this series, and pending book, Peter. You’ve done the public, here and there, a great service. I’m proud to know you.

  3. Shaun Appleby

    Not a bad cover either.  Wish you success; you must be tingling with anticipation of the release.

    As for the past year, it was the “campaign of living dangerously” for Republicans; between the inestimable impact of Citizens United and the reactionary takeover of Republican “policy” we have turned a corner which it is already almost impossible to see back around.  

    Where does it go from here?  Maybe if they lose in November cooler heads will prevail but I doubt it; there will be no putting the shit back in the horse as far as their ‘base’ is concerned.

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