News of the World journalists used phone hacking, harassment and lies to secure scoops on missing British schoolgirl Milly Dowler, police reported Monday, detailing a litany of abusive press practices.
In one incident, someone impersonated the teen's mother and called a potential witness to ask for information about the 13-year-old, who was found dead months later in September 2002. British police did not specify who made the bogus call.
The new details about the News of the World's relentless pursuit of information about the Dowler case, revealed in a letter to lawmakers released Monday, illuminate one of the most sordid episodes of the British phone hacking saga.
The scandal over illegal practices at the now-defunct tabloid exploded in July after The Guardian newspaper reported that the News of the World had intercepted Dowler's voicemail messages while she was still considered missing.
The revelation that journalists had invaded a murdered girl's privacy to score scoops horrified Britons and led to a cascade of lawsuits, resignations, arrests and official inquiries.
Surrey Police Deputy Chief Constable Jerry Kirkby, whose force investigated the girl's disappearance, said in the letter that the News of the World freely admitted to police that it had broken into Dowler's voicemail, saying it had obtained her cell phone number and password from fellow schoolchildren.
Kirkby also said a potential witness called his force to complain that a News of the World reporter was harassing him for information. He said the reporter claimed to be working in “full cooperation” with police.
Kirkby said the “reporter's assertion that he was working with the police was untrue.” The reporter's name was redacted from the letter.
The most troubling incident outlined in Kirkby's letter was a pair of phone calls made to a recruitment agency by someone claiming to be the teenager's mother, Sally Dowler, on April 13, 2002.
At the time, the News of the World wrongly believed Dowler had run away to find work with the agency and was staking out the premises with what one employee described as “hordes of reporters.”
Dowler family attorney Mark Lewis said in an email that Sally Dowler never made the call.
“No doubt there will be current investigations as to who that was,” he said.
Lewis also asked why Surrey Police did not act sooner to investigate the deception, saying that “no thought seems to have been given to the effect on the Dowler family.”
In a separate development, British lawmaker Tom Watson wrote to police asking for an investigation into email hacking at Rupert Murdoch's The Times of London.
In December, Times publisher Tom Mockridge acknowledged that a former reporter had engaged in computer hacking while at the venerable title. The Guardian newspaper, citing unidentified colleagues at The Times, said last week that the reporter had hacked into the Hotmail account of a well-known anonymous police blogger in a bid to discover his identity.
The blogger, Detective Richard Horton, sued The Times in 2009 to stop the paper from exposing him but eventually lost.
Noting that no mention was made of computer hacking at the time, Watson said “it is almost certain that a judge was misled.”
The opposition lawmaker, a dogged opponent of Murdoch, said he wanted police to investigate whether anyone at The Times was guilty of perjury or obstruction of justice — allegations which, if confirmed, could have serious consequences for The Times, which is more than 225 years old.
News International, responsible both for The Times and the News of the World, reiterated that the interception of Dowler's phone was “shocking and unacceptable” and that those who sanctioned or carried out the hacking should be held accountable for their actions.
Police confirmed that they'd received Watson's letter and said they were in contact with the lawmaker over the allegations.
Kirkby's letter: http://bit.ly/wX8Nhn (PDF)
Watson's letter: http://bit.ly/xEFcne