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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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