News of the World may not have deleted Milly Dowler's voicemails

Embarrassment for the Guardian as new police evidence questions one of their central claims on phone

The claim that the News of the World deleted the voicemails of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, giving her family false hope that she was alive, caused revulsion and outrage. When the story broke on 5 July, the Guardian left little doubt that reporters had deliberately deleted messages:

The messages were deleted by journalists in the first few days after Milly's disappearance in order to free up space for more messages. As a result friends and relatives of Milly concluded wrongly that she might still be alive. Police feared evidence may have been destroyed.

Now, however, new evidence has emerged which indicates that Milly's phone automatically deleted messages 72 hours after they were listened to. This means that while News of the World journalists may have inadvertently caused voicemails to be deleted, it was not deliberate, as the original report suggested.

Moreover, police have found that some messages were deleted before the News of the World began hacking Milly's phone. In a moving moment at the Leveson inquiry last month, Sally Dowler describe how the day after her daughter's disappearance, she had found that the voice mailbox had been emptied: "I just jumped and said 'She's picked up her voicemails, she's alive'." According to the police evidence, this took place on 24 March 2002. Police now believe that this could not have been caused by News of the World, which had not yet instructed the private investigator Glenn Mulcaire to hack Milly's phone. It is still unclear what could have caused this deletion.

The Guardian's report on the new revelation quotes the Dowlers' lawyer Mark Lewis reiterating that the missing girl's voicemail was still hacked:

It remains unchallenged that the News of the World listened to Milly Dowler's voicemail and eavesdropped on deeply personal messages which were being left for her by her distraught friends and family.

Fundamentally, it is true that wrong is wrong, and that her voicemails should never have been accessed. It is also worth pointing out that the claim about the voicemails being deleted is by no means the only reason the paper was shut: that Milly's voicemails were hacked at all took disgust at phone-hacking to another level, while Rebekah Brooks told staff that even this was not the only reason for the closure.

However -- as the outraged reaction on Twitter has shown -- this is embarrassing for the Guardian, given that it was reporting on the flaws of another paper. It is a lesson in making sure all the facts are watertight before making unequivocal assertions.

UPDATE 12.20pm: David Leigh, the Guardian's investigations editor, has tweeted: "Guardian was first with #Dowler deletion story - and first w story when Dowler police changed their minds. That's good journalism".

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.