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.
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.
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.