The News of the World Eavesdrops on Missing Children’s Voice Mails Too

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Milly Dowler. Photo: Surrey Police/Guardian

For two years now, Rupert Murdoch's London downmarket tabloid News of the World has been under fire for regularly hacking into the voice mail of story subjects, including politicians and royalty. A top aide to the British prime minister, who had worked at the paper, resigned over the affair, and two journalists were even arrested. But it turns out it's not just high-profile people who got hacked: Milly Dowler, a Surrey schoolgirl who went missing in 2002 at the age of 13 was also victim to their methods. The paper hired a private detective to help intercept calls to her cell phone once she disappeared, and when her voice-mail in-box filled up, reporters deleted messages to make room for more.

From the Guardian:

As her friends and parents called and left messages imploring Milly to get in touch with them, the News of the World was listening and recording their every private word. But the journalists at the News of the World then encountered a problem. Milly's voicemail box filled up and would accept no more messages. Apparently thirsty for more information from more voicemails, the paper intervened - and deleted the messages that had been left in the first few days after her disappearance. According to one source, this had a devastating effect: when her friends and family called again and discovered that her voicemail had been cleared, they concluded that this must have been done by Milly herself and, therefore, that she must still be alive. But she was not. The interference created false hope and extra agony for those who were misled by it.

The Dowler family then granted an exclusive interview to the News of the World in which they talked about their hope, quite unaware that it had been falsely kindled by the newspaper's own intervention. Sally Dowler told the paper: "If Milly walked through the door, I don't think we'd be able to speak. We'd just weep tears of joy and give her a great big hug." The deletion of the messages also caused difficulties for the police by confusing the picture when they had few leads to pursue. It also potentially destroyed valuable evidence.

There's probably a more reprehensible thing a news outlet could do to the family of a missing child, but I'd really rather not try to think of it.

Missing Milly Dowler's voicemail was hacked by News of the World [Guardian UK]