Surrey Police was aware that Milly Dowler’s phone was hacked by someone working for the News of the World in 2002, the force’s chief has said.
Chief Constable Mark Rowley said the now-closed Sunday newspaper made a call to the police operation room co-ordinating the inquiry into the schoolgirl’s disappearance in April 2002 which made it apparent it had accessed her voicemail.
But officers merely “focused on retrieving any evidence the NoW had that could assist in the investigation into Milly Dowler’s disappearance” as that was the priority, Rowley said.
No criminal investigation was launched into how the News International newspaper came by the information it provided and Surrey Police “neither arrested nor charged anyone” in connection with the hacking, he added.
The admission from Surrey Police comes as Labour MP Tom Watson plans to detail new findings of covert surveillance techniques employed by News Corporation that go “beyond phone hacking”.
Watson, the MP for West Bromwich East who has spearheaded the probe into phone hacking, plans to make the revelations at the company’s annual shareholders meeting in Los Angeles today.
It “will leave the company liable to civil liability but also huge reputational harm”, he claimed.
Rowley, in a letter to the Commons Home Affairs select committee, said an inquiry was under way into why no criminal investigation was launched over the Milly Dowler hacking information.
He added it appeared his force also failed to pass this information on to the Metropolitan Police’s original phone hacking investigation in 2006.
Keith Vaz, the committee’s chairman, said: “Had Surrey Police acted in 2002, it may have prevented the culture of hacking becoming endemic at News of the World.
“This was a serious omission. The committee will be investigating further the reasons why Surrey Police did not follow up on this evidence, and why Sussex Police did not flag it up in their review of Operation Ruby.”
In his letter, Rowley said: “From that call it was apparent that person(s) working for, or on behalf of, the NotW had accessed Milly Dowler’s voicemail.”
At the time, the focus of officers was on retrieving any evidence the tabloid may have had that could help them with Milly’s disappearance.
Rowley added: “At that time, the focus and priority of the investigation was to find Milly, who had then been missing for over three weeks and significant resources were deployed to achieve this objective.
“I can confirm that Surrey Police did not launch a criminal investigation into how the NotW came by the information it provided Operation Ruby with in April 2002 and that Surrey Police neither arrested nor charged anyone in relation to accessing Milly Dowler’s voicemail.
“The inquiry team is currently looking into why this was the case.”
Inquiries so far suggest the information illegally gathered by the NotW from Milly’s voicemail was not passed to anybody outside Surrey Police, he said.
Rowley went on: “Based on our inquiry’s research to date it is my understanding that Surrey Police did not pass the information that it had evidence that the NotW had illegally obtained information from Milly Dowler’s voicemail in April 2002 to the Metropolitan Police during their original ‘phone hacking’ investigation in 2006.
“Our inquiry team is currently looking to ascertain the reason for this.”
The Chief Constable also said that during the Dowler investigation, it was “crucial” to engage with the media who had an “insatiable interest” in the inquiry.
He said: “Although many media outlets were interested (and demanding) in relation to Operation Ruby, the NotW was particularly persistent and considerable Surrey Police time had to be spent dealing with their queries.”
Allegations that the murdered teenager’s phone messages were hacked did not emerge publicly until early July this year.
Around three weeks later it emerged that in 2002 Surrey Police had removed a detective from the probe into her disappearance after the officer passed on details of the case to a friend.
The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) is currently investigating an allegation that a Surrey officer passed on information about the search for Milly to journalists in 2002.
There was widespread outrage when it was revealed that 13-year-old Milly’s phone messages had been hacked, sparking a slew of further phone-hacking claims against the News of the World.
Rowley said in his letter that the force took action against the officer in April 2002 after it emerged he had leaked details about the Dowler inquiry to a friend, a retired police officer.
But he added that Surrey Police had no evidence to suggest the detective constable had provided information to journalists and “that remains the case”.
He added that they have been asked by the Operation Weeting team not to disclose details of journalists and executives from the NoW who may have met Surrey Police amid fears it may prejudice the inquiry.
A Sussex Police spokesman said: “It is normal practice for external forces to review unsolved major investigations at different stages.
“Sussex Police conducted an early review of Surrey Police’s investigation into the disappearance of Milly Dowler.
“We will confirm the parameters of this review and provide a response to interested parties as soon as we are able.”