A NEWS of the World reporter played police a tape-recording of Milly Dowler’s hacked voicemails within a month of her disappearance, but officers chose not to investigate, a police report has disclosed.
Surrey Police knew in April 2002 that the tabloid had illegally accessed the schoolgirl’s mobile phone messages, but instead of pressing charges a senior officer from the force invited two NoW staff to a private meeting at the force’s headquarters to discuss the case.
Up to three other police forces were also aware of the hacking by the News of the World, but they did nothing until newspapers reported it last July.
MPs said the Surrey force now had “serious questions” to answer about its response, and suggested the force could have prevented phone-hacking “becoming endemic” at the News of the World if it had acted sooner.
A report on Surrey Police’s internal investigation into why it failed to investigate the hacking also discloses that a News of the World reporter told police the newspaper had obtained Milly’s mobile number and the PIN number used to access her voicemails from her schoolfriends.
In fact, the NoW had paid the private investigator Glenn Mulcaire to do so.
The report also reveals that a NoW investigator posed as one of Milly’s friends in an attempt to “blag” information about her, and suggests that a News of the World investigator also posed as Milly’s mother.
The 13-year-old went missing on her home from school on March 21, 2002, and on April 13 a News of the World reporter contacted Surrey Police to say they had potentially “significant information”.
The reporter said a voicemail left on Milly’s phone suggested she had tried to get work with a recruitment agency.
Surrey Police officers working on the Dowler investigation were unaware that the agency had left the voicemail message until the force was contacted by the News of the World reporter. A week later the NoW played a tape recording of the message to a Surrey Police press office.
The police report, which has been submitted to the Leveson Inquiry, does not name the News of the World journalists who discussed voicemails with its officers, nor does it name the officers and press officers who knew about it.
But officers from Sussex Police, who reviewed the case in 2002, also failed to do anything about the hacking. The report implies that West Mercia police would also have been told about it, but it does not say whether the Metropolitan Police, which worked closely with Surrey on the case, was told.
The internal police report, published by the parliamentary culture, media and sport committee, discloses that three weeks after Milly went missing, a woman claiming to be Sally Dowler phoned a recruitment agency asking if Milly was working for them.
The agency had earlier left a message on Milly’s mobile phone by mistake, after taking down the wrong number for one of its clients. The message was then accessed by the News of the World, which became “110 per cent sure” the 13-year-old had run away from home and was looking for work.
Although the report by Surrey Police does not draw any conclusions about who was impersonating Milly’s mother, it leaves no doubt that the blagger could only have been someone who knew about the voicemail that had been left in error.
It also reveals that a senior Surrey Police officer and press officer met two representatives of the News of the World at the force’s headquarters in July 2002, but no notes of what was said at the meeting have been found.
The investigation, which is ongoing, has not yet established how some of Milly’s voicemail messages came to be deleted in the days after she was abducted, which gave her parents false hope that she was still alive.
Mulcaire has denied that he deleted the messages, and News Group Newspapers, which closed down the News of the World because of the scandal, has said it has no evidence to suggest it was responsible for the deletions.
But it states conclusively that a suggestion made by the former NoW lawyer Tom Crone that the voicemails were given to the newspaper by the police is “not correct”.
Keith Vaz, the chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said: “The information provided by Surrey Police raises serious questions over what they knew about phone hacking and when.
“Had they acted in 2002 or had Sussex Police flagged this up in their review of Operation Ruby it may have prevented the culture of hacking becoming endemic at News of the World.
“The Home Affairs Committee has also received a letter from Surrey Police with additional information to questions posed back in October 2011. We will be considering this information carefully and will look into investigating the reasons why Surrey Police did not follow up on this evidence.”