LONDON — Authorities knew that Rupert Murdoch's News of the World tabloid had hacked into the phone of murdered teenager Milly Dowler nine years before the scandal over the practice exploded, an English police chief said Thursday.
Surrey Police Chief Constable Mark Rowley acknowledged that his force knew as far back as April 2002 that someone linked to the News of the World had accessed Dowler's voicemail, although he said it wasn't yet clear why no one was prosecuted over the practice.
He said an inquiry team "is currently looking into why this was the case," he said in a letter to lawmakers disclosed Thursday.
The disclosure that police were aware that the girl's phone had been hacked and took no action may raise new questions about how police have handled the scandal investigation.
Although former journalists say that the practice of hacking into people's phones to score scoops was common across the British tabloid newspaper industry in the early 2000s, the spying didn't come into the public eye until 2006, when the News of the World's royal editor Clive Goodman was arrested for eavesdropping on members of the British royal household.
The News of the World long insisted that the practice had been limited to a single rogue journalist – but its explanation unraveled as evidence emerged that the hacking had been systematic across the tabloid. Public anger at the News of the World grew, and the scandal boiled over after the Guardian newspaper revealed that the tabloid had hacked into Dowler's phone at a time when her family still held out hope that the missing 13-year-old might still be alive.
The idea that a tabloid would violate the privacy of a murdered teen – and potentially derail a missing person investigation – in the search for stories revolted Britons and led to an advertising boycott that preceded the paper's closure in July.
Murdoch flew to Britain to apologize to the Dowler family in person, but the move failed to stem the scandal, which has claimed several senior executives at his News Corp. media empire.
Particular attention has focused on the relationship between News Corp. and British police, who stand accused of sweeping the phone hacking allegations under the rug so as not to jeopardize their relationship with the company's once-powerful stable of newspapers.
Rowley told lawmakers he could not go into any detail as to which News of the World executives his force had contact with during the Dowler investigation, explaining that the matter was currently the subject of a police investigation.