A Surrey Police report has found that at least five police officers from the force were aware in 2002 that the News of the World had illegally accessed the voicemails of missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler.
One of the officers involved in the case has said that she was told by a senior manager at the time that no action was taken against the paper because they wanted to keep the media “on side”.
Journalists at the News of the World were finally prosecuted for their actions in 2011 when Operation Weeting was launched reopening the 2006 investigation into phone-hacking at the paper.
No police officers have been formally disciplined as a result of the failure to take action against the News of the World.
The Operation Baronet report has concluded: “A decision in 2002 to divert resources from the hunt for Milly to an investigation of NOTW would have been difficult to justify at that time.
“Some action could have been taken, however; either to defer the investigation until later, to refer the matter to another force, to complain to the Press Complaints Commission, or to write formally to the editor of the NOTW. None of these actions were taken.
“Though the hacking issue has become significant in recent years, in 2002 it was apparently considered a relatively minor aspect of the case and, once the issue regarding Mondays Recruitment Agency had been resolved, it is perhaps understandable that the attention and energy of the investigative effort was focused on finding Milly, and that the hacking issue did not resurface.
“There is circumstantial evidence to support this hypothesis.”
The report said however that “the failure to investigate remains a matter of deep regret to Surrey Police; primarily because it has added to the pain and anguish felt by the Dowler family”.
Milly, 13, went missing on 21 March, 2002, prompting the biggest investigation in the history of Surrey Police involving up to 100 full-time officers.
Surrey Police obtained a court production order on 26 March to access the phone messages on Milly’s mobile.
On 27 March a message was left on her mobile from Mondays Recruitment Agency in Telford relating to a job interview.
The Baronet report states how, on Friday 12 April, 2002, various News of the World staff made extensive inquiries with Mondays to establish whether Milly was on their staff. In one instance a female journalist from the paper apparently called the agency pretending to be Milly’s mother.
The report states that the following day, Saturday 13 April, then News of the World managing editor Stuart Kuttner contacted the Dowler investigation incident room at 3.11pm claiming to have significant information about the case.
When he was called back by Detective Sergeant McEntee, Kuttner revealed that he had a recording of a voicemail message from Milly’s mobile and provided police with her number.
Kuttner said the paper had confirmed the number with Milly’s school friends.
The delay of at least a day between the News of the World hearing the message from the recruitment agency on Milly’s voicemail and passing the information on to police was described as “unforgivable” by the judge in the hacking trial.
Later the same day DS McEntee received a call from then News of the World reporter Neville Thurlbeck (who was subsequently convicted of conspiracy to hack Milly’s phone along with private investigator Glenn Mulcaire).
Thurlbeck said that the following message was recorded on her voicemail: “Hello Mandy. This is Joe at Mondays Recruitment Agency. We are ringing because we are starting interviewing today at Epson. Call back on [number redacted]. Thanks, bye bye”.
Police at the time believed the message was the work of a hoaxer.
DS McEntee told the Baronet report: “It was the only time in my police service that I have considered cautioning someone over the telephone in relation to a criminal offence”. He further stated that: “I had very strong thoughts about the fact that Milly’s voicemails had been unlawfully accessed”.
Later than night, the NoW first edition went to press with a story (pictured above) about the phone message which included the following comment to Surrey Police: “We are intrigued, but believe the message may have been left by a deranged woman hoaxer thought to have hampered other police inquiries”.
The Baronet report says: “These words were not provided to the NOTW by Surrey Police.”
In later editions the story contained this official Surrey Police statement: “We are evaluating the claim that Amanda may have registered with a recruitment agency. At this stage there is the possibility that a hoaxer may be involved in generating this story”.
It later turned out that the voicemail call by the agency was in fact intended for someone called Nana and ended up on Milly’s voicemail by mistake.
Surrey Police did not access the relevant voicemail themselves until 17 April 2002.
The Guardian’s report of the Milly Dowler voicemail hacking from July 2011 said that the News of the World had deleted messages on her phone giving the family “false hope” she was alive.
The Baronet report underlines previous findings that the messages were probably deleted automatically by the voicemail system.
The report also notes that in April 2002 a man obtained details of calls to the Dowler’s home telephone by calling BT. No further action was taken by Surrey Police over this suspected crime either.
In May 2002, The Sun and News of the World jointly put forward a reward of £100,000 to find Milly Dowler.
An officer on the inquiry told the Baronet report that Surrey Police decided to work with the papers on the reward (despite reluctance to do so) because they were going to go ahead and offer it anyway.
They said: “Should NOW [NOTW] go ahead without our having appropriate resources in place, it is probable that we would alienate the public by virtue of not being able to respond to any demand”.
The offer reward reportedly led to more than 600 calls after it was launched.
In July 2014, following the hacking trial, Andy Coulson (who was deputy editor of the News of the World in 2002) was found guilty of conspiracy to hack phones along with former news editors Greg Miskiw and James Weatherup, former chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck, former private investigator for the paper Glenn Mulcaire and former reporter Dan Evans.
Another former News editor for the paper, Ian Edmondson, was also subsequently convicted of phone-hacking.
The News of the World editor in 2002 Rebekah Brooks (now chief executive of parent company News UK) was found not guilty by the jury, as was managing editor Stuart Kuttner.