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An unusual twist in the NotW phone-hacking tale

The Leveson inquiry into the UK print media has taken an unusual turn with the revelation that one of the centrepieces of the whole phone-hacking affair — the wiping of messages from murdered teenager Milly Dowler’s phone — was almost certainly not done by News of the World employees, as had been alleged.

The allegations concerning NotW journalists, and private detective Glenn Mulcaire, were made by Guardian journalist Nick Davies, as part of the long investigation of the phone-hacking affair. The suggestion that repeated hacking of Milly Dowler’s voicemail had deleted two old messages, and thus given her parents hope that she might be alive, was the catalyst for a whole chain of events — a grovelling apology by Rupert Murdoch, and the negotiation of a huge out-of-court settlement with the Dowlers, and the closure of News Corporation’s News of the World, the UK’s biggest-selling newspaper.

But the Leveson inquiry has now been informed that the voice messages on the phone were probably automatically deleted. Neil Garnham, QC, a lawyer for the Metropolitan Police, has told the inquiry that the system used by the phone provider in question automatically deletes messages after 72 hours, and that this was the most likely cause of the deletion.

The Guardian has since appended a footnote to its original story on its website to this effect, and Davies has written a piece claiming that the vast bulk of the paper’s reporting on this specific matter has been vindicated. Davies argues that the original story was accurate in terms of what the police knew at the time — which, given police behaviour throughout the hacking affair, appears to be curiously trusting of the plod.

Nor does it answer a key question — why didn’t The Guardian make any checks to see if it were possible that the voice messages had been deleted automatically? There are only five phone providers in the UK. Even if the Dowlers hadn’t known what provider their daughter had used, wouldn’t it have been straightforward, and duly diligent, to establish that automatic deletion wasn’t possible?

Lord Leveson is taking no chances on the matter, since everything remains unclear  — he’s established an independent sub-inquiry into the whole Dowler affair, to sort out what really went wrong. Davies and The Guardian have made the point that no one else raised the question as to whether News Corp activity had deleted the messages, but — well, why would they?

It had been comprehensively established that News Corp had imposed no moral boundary as to when hacking should be performed, and any News Corp cavilling would have looked liked special pleading, and hardly mitigated its guilt. The police, for their part, were hardly likely to question their own, much-maligned investigation. It fell to the paper doing the original inquiries to make sure they had their story straight.

The Guardian’s account of the tangle has been met with less than total agreement. In The Independent, Stephen Glover has accused the paper of burying a correction of the “most important story it has ever published, one that closed the News of the World”. Glover argues that the most recent claim by The Guardian — that NotW journalists “probably were responsible for deleting some of the missing girl’s messages” was purely speculative and a long way from its earlier claims.

Nick Davies has blamed executives and editors at The Guardian for “pecking at” the clarification of the original story, and leaving it deliberately vague.

The Leveson inquiry continues.

12
  • 1
    Chris Graham
    Posted Tuesday, 13 December 2011 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Love your work Guy, but does it really matter? They hacked a murdered girl’s phone.

  • 2
    Oscar Jones
    Posted Tuesday, 13 December 2011 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    Nick Davies is correct. If journalists had not been commissioning criminal acts they would have no case to answer.

    The wording of this claim that NOTW hacks may have not hacked is shockingly arranged to give an impression of NOTW innocence when no such thing has been established.

    The overall criminality that has occurred with pontificating and moralising tabloids is continually being sidelined by these distractions.

    Look at the facts-the Murdochs closed the most profitable newspaper in their stable and they could also have done the checks as could the police. The unholy alliance between Fleet Street and the police is being exposed for what it is-corruption at the highest levels.

    My view-the Leveson Inquiry is merely skimming the surface. Why aren’t people like the convicted Gary Glitter asked to give evidence that while he has served his term and entitled to re-enter society like any other person, he has been hounded from home to home in a bizarre and vindictive campaign of harassment by tabloids (with one journalist who has been arrested in this inquiry).

    People can throw their hands up in horror at a Glitter character but thousands of others have suffered similarly so a corporation can profit handsomely-the same corporation that controls much of Australia’s media.

    If Leveson & Finklestein blow these inquiries it will be far worse than before.

  • 3
    shepherdmarilyn
    Posted Tuesday, 13 December 2011 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    They still committed the crimes against hundreds or thousands of innocent people in the name of smut.

  • 4
    DF
    Posted Tuesday, 13 December 2011 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    I’d suggest they were so involved in criminal activities re hacking phones that they had no idea who was doing what. More damning is that no-one was prepared to question Davies’ assertion, meaning they accepted it was likely and probable, which means there were no moral or ethical boundaries or, if there were, they were further out beyond this point.

  • 5
    Mack the Knife
    Posted Tuesday, 13 December 2011 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    If messages were deleted after 72 hours her phone should have been entirely devoid of all messages which it wasn’t as at one stage it was full.

    This certainly doesn’t absolve “was almost certainly not done by News of the World employees, as had been alleged” at all. If they were innocent they would have squealed loudly and we know instead they accepted culpability.

    Somehow I sense the immense power of News International at work here (over the police force that was bribed).

  • 6
    Jackol
    Posted Tuesday, 13 December 2011 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    I actually doubt that the messages were automatically deleted - deleting messages after 72 hours is unheard of for any phone plan I’ve ever had, although obviously a cheap and nasty prepaid or something like that it is a possibility I suppose.

    It seems much more likely that the Ts&Cs from the phone company say something like “may be” deleted after 72 hours, and that in fact they were NOT automatically deleted at all in all likelihood.

  • 7
    Lord Barry Bonkton
    Posted Tuesday, 13 December 2011 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    Guilty your Honor , not fit or proper to own any media . Full stop. Should be trialled as a “Terrorists ” in my mind , the lot of them. Trying to overthrow a country ?

  • 8
    zut alors
    Posted Tuesday, 13 December 2011 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

    Jackol,

    Telstra Message Bank for fixed lines has a limit on the number of messages it holds (perhaps 10?). If caller 11 leaves a message then the message from caller 1 is deleted to make way for it. That’s why I never leave a message on the Telstra service as it’s not guaranteed the person will receive it.

    Am not 100% sure of this, perhaps a Crikey reader will confirm or correct.

  • 9
    paddy
    Posted Tuesday, 13 December 2011 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    This link has a “reality check” about the voice mail deletion after 72 hrs.

    http://tiny.cc/h11cs

    Basically, only messages that had been accessed would have been deleted.
    So, while Glenn Mulcaire now has an out, NOTW is still on the hook for this outrage.

  • 10
    Kevin Tyerman
    Posted Wednesday, 14 December 2011 at 2:27 am | Permalink

    Re: Mack the Knife’s comment: “If messages were deleted after 72 hours her phone should have been entirely devoid of all messages which it wasn’t as at one stage it was full.”

    If their system is like the system used by my Nokia 1610 (yes, I still use one of those), the messages are deleted about 72 hours after they are accessed. If that is the system, and NOTW was the only one accessing the messages, they would have been responsible for messages being deleted, even if they did not specifically delete them. This would also explain Mrs Dowler being relieved that there was suddenly message space when calling Milly’s phone. Until they were accessed by NOTW, the message bank would appear to have been full with unaccessed messages, and I am guessing, no new messages could be left until that point.

    It may make one aspect of the original report wrong (the intention to delete messages to make space for new ones), but does not change the consequences of NOTW’s actions (that Milly was believed to be alive as her voicemail had been accessed).

  • 11
    Mack the Knife
    Posted Wednesday, 14 December 2011 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    Thanks Kevin.

    Have to laugh (or cry) at James Murdoch’s defence at being found out that he received pertinent emails re the hacking- ‘I didn’t read them’.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2011/dec/13/james-murdoch-phone-hacking-email

    Hope the family of Murdoch’s go to gaol with Rebbekka Brooks and are never heard of again.

  • 12
    Maninmelbourne
    Posted Monday, 19 December 2011 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    The claims that the NoTW didn’t delete messages were made by a lawyer for the Met, who are deeply involved in the scandal - so he would say that, wouldn’t he?

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