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.

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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.