For the most part evidence at the Leveson Inquiry has made The Guardian’s investigation into phone-hacking seem more impressive, if anything, than it first appeared.
For one thing it is clear that lead reporter on the story Nick Davies cultivated a huge variety of sources to stand up various elements of the story.
But it has also exposed some chinks in The Guardian, and (I very humbly suggest) in Davies’ journalistic armour. Namely, the reluctance to insert the usual caveats when making serious allegations in news stories.
Davies was clearly convinced that the News of the World did delete Milly Dowler’s voicemails in the days after she went missing.
In July, all parties agreed that it was the News of the World. We had that confirmed directly or indirectly from Scotland Yard, Surrey police, the Dowler family, and even by Mulcaire who apologised for what he had done.
In the last four weeks the Met officers have approached Surrey police and taken formal statements from some of those involved in the original inquiry, who were concerned about how News of the World journalists intercepted – and deleted – the voicemail messages of Milly Dowler.
The messages were deleted by 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. Police feared evidence may have been destroyed.
It is understood that while News of the World reporters probably were responsible for deleting some of the missing girl’s messages, police have concluded that they were not responsible for the particular deletion which caused her family to have false hope that she was alive.
Detectives told Milly’s parents in April that the paper’s journalists had intercepted and deleted messages on the murdered teenager’s phone. Evidence has now revealed that Milly’s phone would automatically delete messages 72 hours after being listened to.
Yesterday, the picture cleared a little further when the Met Police’s QC Neil Garnham gave further evidence to the Leveson Inquiry on this point.
He revealed that the “false hope” moment, when Mrs Dowler called Milly’s phone to find space had been freed up on her voicemail box came three days after the teenager’s disappearance – not two or three weeks, as the Dowlers had previously recalled.
Davies made this point himself yesterday afternoon in a further story which sought to clarify matters (published just before Garnham’s testimony).
Garnham further stated that Mulcaire hadn’t at this point been commissioned by the NoW on the Dowler story, so probably couldn’t have accessed or deleted any voicemail messages. He also said that he did not believe anyone else working for the News of the World was responsible for accessing Milly’s voicemails at that first 72-hour period.
He said that the Met believes that the deletions were an automatic feature of the phone-company, which deleted read messages after 72 hours. Although it was worth noting that counsel for the victims David Sherborne later said he had seen evidence which suggested a News of the world journalist could still have been responsible for the deletions.
Garnham also denied the suggestion that the police had told the Dowlers that News of the World journalists deleted Milly’s voicemails:
“Some of the press reports suggest the MPS told Mrs Dowler News of the World journalists had deleted Milly Dowler’s voicemails. I can see from MPS records that the MPS did not tell the Dowlers that voicemails have been deleted for the simple reason that they did not know of any such allegations.”
He said that shortly before the Levi Bellfield trial – which took place in June this year – the Dowlers were told that Glenn Mulcaire had hacked Milly’s phone. And he said that it was at this point Mrs Dowler – now wrongly it seems – made the connection with the “false hope” moment, and concluded that Mulcaire (or someone else working for the NoW) was responsible for message deletions in the days after Milly’s disappearance.
Would the News of the World still have closed without the “false hope” allegation being wrongly reported? In my view yes. The paper still hacked the phone of a murdered schoolgirl and since then many other damaging revelations have come to light.
The Guardian really is a paragon of journalistic virtue in most ways. But this latest twist in the hacking affair shows that even they can learn a thing or two on the “culture, practice and ethics” from the Leveson Inquiry.
Last month the Guardian wrongly stated that The Sun had sent a reporter to doorstep a Leveson Inquiry laywer.
And in July it stated in a story about Gordon Brown that “details from his infant son’s medical records were obtained by the Sun, who published a story about the child’s serious illness”.
Both these stories prompted apologies partly because the Guardian made damaging allegations as statements of fact – rather than attributing them to ‘sources’ or inserting some other caveats.