News of the World executives are to meet police today for urgent talks over allegations that a private investigator working for the newspaper hacked into the mobile phone of murdered teenager Milly Dowler.
The schoolgirl's parents said they had been given “false hope” that their daughter could still be alive after the investigator allegedly intercepted and deleted voicemail messages on her phone.
Police are set to meet NotW executives at 9.30am to discuss the allegations, but sources said today that former editor Rebekah Brooks, now chief executive of News International, will not be resigning.
She has told News International staff that she is "deeply shocked" but wasn't involved.
It is claimed that the Sunday tabloid targeted the 13-year-old's phone in March 2002, shortly after she was snatched from the streets near her home in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey.
The newspaper allegedly erased voicemails left on her phone by concerned friends and relatives to free up space in her inbox, so it could access fresh messages for stories.
A lawyer speaking on behalf of Sally and Bob Dowler described the alleged hacking as “heinous” and “despicable” as he announced that the family were pursuing a claim for damages.
Senior figures at the newspaper are to speak with Scotland Yard detectives today and an internal investigation has been launched.
A spokesman for News International, the paper's publisher, said: "This particular case is clearly a development of great concern and we will be conducting our own inquiries as a result. We will obviously co-operate fully with any police request on this."
Details of the alleged hacking were found in nearly 10,000 pages of notes seized by Scotland Yard detectives from Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator who worked for the News of the World
The hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone would represent the most significant twist in the scandal surrounding the News of the World, which has previously been confined, in most cases, to celebrity victims.
It also raises questions over the leadership of Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International, who was editor of the News of the World at the time of the alleged hacking.
Speaking on Radio 4's Today programme, Paul Connew, former deputy editor of the newspaper, said: "It raises a lot of challenging questions as to who knew what and when.
"It depends on who was running Glenn Mulcaire, who he was reporting to and whether there was an elaborate attempt to conceal ... what he was up to and why he was being paid.
"Quite clearly he was working to certain executives but how high up the command chain knowledge went is the million dollar question."
Asked if it was conceivable that Brooks did not know about the hacking, he added: "I was always very determined to know the provenance of stories but that doesn't necessarily mean every editor is.
"It all depends on the relationship they had with more junior executives and how honest those executives were with their superiors."
Labour leader Ed Miliband described the hacking as a "cruel and immoral act", while Yvette Cooper said it is "truly despicable".
Last night a Labour MP claimed that investigators had also targeted one of the parents of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, the victims of the Soham murderer Ian Huntley.
In what was described as a “shocking development” by sources at No?10, it is claimed that intimate messages on the 13 year-old’s phone — some from worried family members — were listened to and then deleted in order to free space on the messaging system shortly after she went missing in March 2002.
The deleting of the messages led family members to believe that the teenager could still be alive. It could also have erased evidence that would have assisted police.
Officers from the Metropolitan Police are now said to be speaking to detectives in Surrey who worked on the Milly Dowler investigation, some of whom raised concerns about potential phone hacking at the time of the inquiry.
Yesterday it was also disclosed that police have contacted Sir Richard Branson, the entrepreneur, and Colin Stagg, the man wrongly accused of killing Rachel Nickell, to inform them that they may have been victims of phone hacking.
News International, which owns the News of the World, last night faced a growing political backlash as senior Labour figures called for Mrs Brooks to step down. Mrs Brooks edited the News of the World when the alleged hacking took place. During her time at the newspaper, she campaigned for the introduction of Sarah’s Law. The scheme, proposed after eight-year-old Sarah Payne’s murder 11 years ago, lets parents check if anyone with access to their children has a paedophile background.
Politicians said that the allegations raised fresh concerns over the bid by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation — which owns News International — to take full ownership of BskyB. Labour figures questioned the suitability of Mr Murdoch as the prospective sole owner of the television company.
The Milly Dowler allegations date to April 2002, less than a month after the teenager went missing in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, on March 21. It is alleged that the newspaper gained her mobile telephone number and began listening to her voicemails just days after she disappeared. When the message inbox became full they allegedly deleted the messages in order that they could hear any newer messages that were left. This, it is alleged, had the effect of leading Milly’s family to believe that, because they could leave voicemails when previously they were unable to, the teenager was still alive and was deleting them herself.
At one point during the investigation into her disappearance, the News of the World ran an article which, it is suggested, hinted at the fact the newspaper had access to her voicemails.
A story published in the newspaper on April 14, 2002 told of a woman who had apparently been posing as the youngster when applying for jobs. The story claimed the woman gave a recruitment company Milly’s number and continues: “The agency used the number to contact Milly when a job vacancy arose and left a message on her voicemail after the 13 year-old vanished.”
A statement from the family’s lawyer, Mark Lewis of Taylor Hampton, said the Dowlers were distressed at the revelation. He said that they had been contacted by the Metropolitan police last month during the Old Bailey trial of Levi Bellfield, who was convicted of Milly’s murder two weeks ago.
He also questioned why it had taken Scotland Yard officers so long to tell the Dowlers, given that the information is alleged to have been found in files the force has had for more than five years. The family statement said: “It is distress heaped upon tragedy to learn that the News of the World had no humanity at such a terrible time. The fact that they were prepared to act in such a heinous way that could have jeopardised the police investigation and give them false hope is despicable.”
Bob Dowler, Milly’s father refused to speak about the allegations.
He said: “We are not giving any interviews about this.”
Tom Watson, a Labour MP, said in the Commons yesterday that the alleged hacking was a “despicable and evil act”.
He also alleged that one of Kevin and Nicola Wells or Leslie and Sharon Chapman, the parents of the two girls murdered by Ian Huntley, had also had their phone messages hacked into.
A News International spokesman said: “We have been co-operating fully with Operation Weeting since our voluntary disclosure in January restarted the investigation into illegal voicemail interception.
“This particular case is clearly a development of great concern and we will be conducting our own inquiries as a result.”
Scotland Yard refused to comment, but a senior police source said: “This was a gross, gross breach of journalistic standards. Really terrible. We are only just beginning to see the scale of what was going on.”