NOTW Was Responsible for ‘Deleted’ Dowler Voice Mails

The big story from yesterday’s proceedings at the Leveson Inquiry came from outside the actual hearing in the form of an announcement that, following its own inquiries. the Metropolitan Police do no believe that NOTW journalists actually deleted voice mails from Milly Dowler’s mobile phone.

This was quickly followed by the Guardian adding the following correction to its original story which, of course, served as the trigger for a chain of event which resulted in the closure of the newspaper and, ultimately, to the Leveson Inquiry itself.

An article about the investigation into the abduction and death of Milly Dowler (News of the World hacked Milly Dowler’s phone during police hunt, 5 July, page 1) stated that voicemail “messages were deleted by [NoW] journalists in the first few days after Milly’s disappearance in order to free up space for more messages. As a result friends and relatives of Milly concluded wrongly that she might still be alive.” Since this story was published new evidence – as reported in the Guardian of 10 December – has led the Metropolitan police to believe that this was unlikely to have been correct and that while the News of the World hacked Milly Dowler’s phone the newspaper is unlikely to have been responsible for the deletion of a set of voicemails from the phone that caused her parents to have false hopes that she was alive, according to a Metropolitan police statement made to the Leveson inquiry on 12 December.

Unfortunately, the Met, which – lest not forget – made a complete hash of investigating the use of phone hacking by journalists despite sitting on a mass of evidence of unlawful conduct by the newspaper for several years, appears to have been rather premature in its efforts to exonerate the newspaper of all blame for an incident which falsely raised the Dowler family’s hopes that their daughter might still be alive.

Indeed, one could well argue that, as has been the case throughout its entire investigation, the Met has been just a little economical with the actualité in claiming that the NOTW and its journalists are now ‘unlikely to have been responsible for the deletion of a set of voicemails’ from Milly Dowler’s phone.

Last night, I took the opportunity to talk this development over with a good friend who knows a thing or two about the voice mail systems used by mobile phone service providers – he’s a telecom’s engineer with more than 20 years experience of working for major UK and European telecoms providers, and the one thing he is absolutely certain of is that none of the main telecoms providers operate a voice mail system which automatically dumps voice mail messages that haven’t been accessed after a set period of time, even if a voice mail box is full to capacity and, therefore, unable to take any further messages.

This, in his professional opinion, simply does not happen anywhere in the industry for which he’s worked for more than two decades.

However, these voice mail systems can, and often are, configured to drop messages that have been accessed after a set period of time, typically 48 or 72 hours, unless the subscriber actively chooses to store a message that they’ve accessed, once they’ve listened to the message.

In some cases, this feature is set up in such a way that it only operates if the voice mail box reaches, or approaches, capacity. In other’s its a feature that operates regardless of the number of messages in the mailbox, unless the subscriber chooses to alter their mailbox configuration to turn this feature off or modify it such that it only operates when the mailbox is full or close to full.

Even so, these systems do not dump any messages that have not been accessed by the subscriber – it is only messages that have been accessed and not actively stored that are dropped from the mailbox after a set period of time.

So, while it may well be the case that the NOTW journalists who did, by the paper’s own admission, hack into Milly Dowler’s voice mail system, did not actively delete messages from that mailbox they are nevertheless still responsible for the messages they did access being dropped from the mailbox by the system, messages whose disappearance from the system did give the Dowler family the false impression that their daughter might still be alive.

Once you understand how the technology works, the equation is simple.

No phone hacking equals no messages accessed equals no messages dropped from the system after 72 hours and no false hope for the family.

The responsibility for the chain of events that did result in messages being dropped from Milly Dowler’s voice mail system is still there, firmly at the door of the NOTW, even if it arose from its journalists’ lack of understanding as to how voice mail systems work and not from the deliberate deletion of messages.

After all, none of this would have happened at all, had NOTW journalists not illegally accessed Milly Dowler’s voice mail in the first place.

UPDATE

To clarify the timings, Nick Davies has provided this commentary on the timeline at the Guardian

However, two pieces of new evidence have made the picture more complex. First, Surrey police have been able to establish the exact timing of the false-hope moment, at 7pm on the evening of Sunday 24 March 2002, three days after Milly was abducted. This was a surprise for the Dowlers who had always recalled that it happened two or three weeks after her disappearance. Original police records show that, understandably in the awful stress of events, their timeframe was distorted.

Second, Scotland Yard concluded that Mulcaire was not tasked to intercept the girl’s messages until after that date. This was a surprise to Mulcaire who had felt very oppressed by the Dowler revelations and who, according to a close friend, was in tears after he heard the news.

So who did delete the messages which gave false hope to the Dowlers? At first, one other fragment of new evidence appeared to provide the answer: records showed that Milly’s phone would automatically delete any message 72 hours after it had been listened to. The false-hope moment happened some 75 hours after she was abducted on Thursday afternoon, March 21. But this theory then collapsed, because the records also showed that she had not listened to her voicemail since the preceding day, so the 72-hour period had ended on the Saturday afternoon.

As the Leveson inquiry heard on Monday afternoon, there is one other fragment which leaves the News of the World in a grey area. Surrey police have evidence suggesting that one of the paper’s journalists had her phone number and pin code. This leaves open the possibility that, before Glenn Mulcaire was tasked, that journalist separately was hacking the girl’s messages and made deletions. However, there is no confirmation of that. So far there has been no comment on this from News International.

And the Dowler family has issued this statement via their lawyer:

What is known is that the deletions were not automatically triggered by Milly. The mobile telephone company’s records show that Milly’s last call on her own phone was made on Wednesday 20 March 2002. Automatic deletion triggered by Milly would have happened (at the latest) by Saturday 23 March 2002. The deletions that gave false hope to the Dowler family happened after that date and therefore were caused by someone else accessing her voicemail.

The Metropolitan police now say that an email indicates that Glenn Mulcaire was instructed in writing after the Dowler family’s hopes were cruelly raised. Whether Mr Mulcaire was verbally instructed by that individual earlier, or whether the deletions were triggered by someone else is not known. It is known that a News of the World journalist indicated in 2002 that he had obtained Milly’s phone number and the PIN number required to access her voicemails from a source other than Glenn Mulcaire.

During the course of the original investigation, Surrey police were in touch with very senior journalists from the paper. A consequence of their discussions was the radical alteration in the later editions of a story which had appeared in the first edition of the News of the World of 14 April 2002.

A formal investigation into the role of individuals at Surrey police is being undertaken by the IPCC. The Metropolitan police are investigating the activities of individuals at the paper. At this stage it would not be appropriate to make further comment about those concerned.

It remains unchallenged that the News of the World listened to Milly Dowler’s voicemail and eavesdropped on deeply personal messages which were being left for her by her distraught friends and family. By listening to messages, deletions occurred even if no conscious act of deletion had been undertaken. This was why Mr Rupert Murdoch apologised to the Dowler family and conceded that his newspaper’s behaviour had been abhorrent and a letdown to his father’s memory and to his mother’s standards.

Milly Dowler’s own phone was not used to access her voice mail after 20 March 2002, which rules out the possibility that her murder, Levi Bellfield, might have accessed her messages, all of which leaves the News of the World still very in the frame…

…unless a journalist working for another newspaper at the time would like to own up to having accessed Milly Dowler’s voicemail in the days immediately following her disappearance.

UPDATE

There’s some speculation on Twitter that the police might have been responsible for accessing Milly Dowler’s voicemail before 24 March 2002.

For the record, RIPA (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) was in effect at the time, which means that to legally access Dowler’s voicemail, investigating officers would have had to obtain an intercept authorisation from a senior officer, a request that would be recorded by the police and kept on Dowler’s case file.

So, no – without evidence of such an authorisation, the police could not have legally accessed Dowler’s voicemail and if they had obtained such an authorisation, they would have no reason not to disclose the fact to the Dowler family who would surely not have had any objection to an intercept, at the time, if they were told that this might assist with the police’s enquries into their daughter’s disappearance.

  • truthmeister

    Wasn’t it Bellfield the murderer listened to the voicemails causing them todrop out of the mailbox system described above?  Keep up with the time line and offer detailed analysis of your subject not your prejudices

    • Anonymous

      An interesting theory that’s all rather spoiled by the complete lack of evidence to show that Bellfield ever accessed Dowler’s voicemail and the lack of any reference to him behaving in this manner in any of the trial coverage.

      If there were any evidence that Bellfield had ever accessed Dowler’s voicemail, do you not think that the NOTW would have played that card at the time the phone hacking story broke?

      You see, I don’t just keep up with the timeline, I check it as well.

    • Hurricance Henry

      ‘Truthmesiter’? You clearly just plucked that from your arse. Complete bollocks.

  • ian

    If the family were given “false hopes”, then that means that they (or their representatives) must be checking the voicemail regularly. So, could it not be them (or their representatives) triggering the automatic deletion?

    • Richard Gadsden

      My understanding is that the family were trying to leave messages and the mailbox was full, then they tried again and were allowed to, which made them believe (falsely) that Milly was alive and listening to the messages they were leaving.

      • ian

        Makes sense, thanks.

        Depends on the timing I guess – i.e. was the “false hope” occurring before any possible (and entirely legitimate) monitoring of the voicemail?

  • justaghost

    My operator does in fact dump unread voicemail messages after 72 hours of receiving unless I listen to them and specifically save them. Dutch operator, KPN. So, this does happen in Europe. I cannot say which other operators do this in the Netherlands or elsewhere in the EU, but KPN at least does it.

    Unless you meant that your contact is absolutely certain about UK operators only, then nevermind me. The wording is a bit unclear whether you mean just UK or rest of Europe as well there.

  • ian

    Nick Davies has some comment on the timing. The “false hope” moment happened “three days after Milly was abducted”, and “Mulcaire was not tasked to intercept the girl’s messages until after that date”. Further, it could not have been Milly herself.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2011/dec/12/phone-hacking-milly-dowler

    So who did access the voicemail?

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  • Anonymous

    Truthmeister is claiming knowledge about the events surrounding Dowler’s disappearance that no one else possesses, not even the police.

    Under the terms of the International Murder She Wrote Convention, that, I guess, makes him Bellfield’s accomplice. 😉

    • Hurricance Henry

      Perhaps it was one of those really vivid dreams you sometimes have after a night out – you recall it some time later that day and can’t tell whether it actually happened or not.

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  • It’s also possible that Some Uther Newspaper was trying to muscle in on the story independently.