LONDON — A private investigator working for Rupert Murdoch's News of the World tabloid did not delete voicemails from the phone of a missing girl, a police lawyer said Monday – casting new light on the critical event that sparked Britain's phone hacking scandal.
The claim that the tabloid not only listened to but interfered with messages left for 13-year-old Milly Dowler in 2002 horrified many Britons, triggering a furor this summer about media malpractice that shook Murdoch's global media empire and rattled Britain's police, media and government.
The scandal exploded after the Guardian newspaper reported in July that the News of the World had eavesdropped on the girl's voicemails after she disappeared and may have hampered the police search for her by deleting messages.
Dowler's parents have described feeling elated when they were able to reach Milly's previously full mailbox several days after she disappeared, because that made them think their daughter was alive. In fact, she had been murdered. Her body was found several months later.
Neil Garnham, a lawyer for London's police force, told Britain's media ethics inquiry that it had been widely reported that someone from the News of the World – most likely private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, who was later jailed for hacking the phones of royal staff – "had deleted voicemail messages to make way for further recordings."
But he said the police had never told the Dowler family that messages had been deleted.
Garnham said Mulcaire had not been assigned to the Dowler story until after the messages disappeared, and police had found no evidence pointing to any other employee of the newspaper.
"The most likely suggestion is that existing messages automatically dropped off after 72 hours," Garnham said.
Prime Minister David Cameron set up the judge-led media inquiry after it emerged that the News of the World had for years illegally eavesdropped on the voicemail messages of celebrities, public figures and crime victims in its quest for exclusive stories. Murdoch shut down the 168-year-old newspaper in July amid a wave of public revulsion over the hacking of Milly's phone.
Murdoch's News International later paid 2 million pounds ($3.2 million) compensation to the Dowler family and apologized for the tabloid's "abhorrent" behavior.
The Dowler family's lawyer, Mark Lewis, said in a statement the main claims against the News of the World remained, even though it was unclear who had deleted Milly's messages.
"(It) remains unchallenged that the News of the World listened to Milly's voicemail and eavesdropped on deeply personal messages which were being left for her by her distraught friends and family," he said.
Another lawyer for the family, David Sherborne, said it was possible that someone else from the newspaper had deleted the messages. He said at least one News of the World journalist had obtained Milly's mobile phone number and her access code independently of Mulcaire.
More than a dozen Murdoch employees have been arrested in the hacking scandal, although none has been charged apart from Mulcaire and reporter Clive Goodman, who were both jailed temporarily in 2007. The scandal also has cost the jobs of several top Murdoch executives, two senior police officers and Cameron's communications chief.
The inquiry, led by justice Brian Leveson, has heard from crime victims and celebrities, including actor Hugh Grant and "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling, who have described the devastating effect media intrusion had had on their lives.
This week it is hearing from people associated with Murdoch's British newspaper arm, News International.
On Monday, two former News of the World reporters spoke up for much-maligned tabloid tactics, saying undercover stings and kiss-and-tell stories helped expose criminals, match-fixing athletes and hypocrites.
Mazher Mahmood, once the tabloid's star undercover reporter, said his stories had to meet rigorous public interest standards, such as exposing criminality or "moral wrongdoing" by public figures such as members of Parliament.
"I don't think I'd vote for my MP if I knew he was cheating on his wife," said Mahmood, a controversial figure nicknamed the "Fake Sheik" after his signature ruse of pretending to be a rich Gulf businessman to trap celebrities, politicians and suspected criminals. "If you hold public office, you should be open to scrutiny."
He also said celebrities were fair game "if they present themselves as wholesome characters and trade on that status" while behaving hypocritically.
Mahmood, who now works for Murdoch's Sunday Times newspaper, said he was proud that his investigations had resulted in more than 260 criminal prosecutions – including the convictions last month of three Pakistani cricketers for match-fixing in a scandal that rocked the sports world.
He gave evidence out of sight to protect his identity. His words, but not his face, were broadcast on the inquiry's website.
Former News of the World chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck – currently on bail over alleged phone hacking – said hacking had been "a tiny part of the News of the World's 168-year history."
"The News of the World was not a toxic institution," he said.
Jill Lawless can be reached at: http://twitter.com/JillLawless