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Phone hacking made Milly Dowler parents think daughter was 'alive'

The parents of a murdered schoolgirl describe their heartbreak at her phone being hacked by the News of the World after her abduction.

Bob and Sally Dowler, the parents of murdered schoolgirl Milly, arrive at  the Leveson Inquiry at London’s High Court yesterday.
Bob and Sally Dowler, the parents of murdered schoolgirl Milly, arrive at the Leveson Inquiry at London’s High Court yesterday.

LONDON // The parents of a murdered schoolgirl yesterday described their heartbreak at her phone being hacked by a newspaper after her abduction.

Bob and Sally Dowler were the first victims of the hacking scandal to give evidence at the legal inquiry into the actions of the News of the World tabloid.

Mrs Dowler told the inquiry that when Milly, 13, failed to come home from school, she and her husband left messages on her phone until the voice mail was full.

Later, Mrs Dowler tried again. "I rang her phone and it clicked through on to her voice mail and I just jumped and said, 'She's picked up her voicemails, Bob. She's alive!'," Mrs Dowler told the inquiry.

But Milly had already been killed and some messages on her phone had been deleted by a private investigator working for the paper so he could hack into new ones.

When her parents discovered the deleted messages were the result of hacking, Mrs Dowler said she did not sleep for three nights because the revelation was "terribly difficult to process".

Mr Dowler added: "The gravity of what had happened had to be investigated. There is a much bigger picture.

"Given that we learnt about those hacking revelations just before the trial [earlier this year] for the murder of our daughter, it was extremely important that we understood, and people understand, exactly what went on in terms of these practices.

"We would sincerely hope that News International [the Murdoch newspaper group in the UK] and other media organisations would look very carefully how they procure information about stories. The ramifications are far greater than what appears in the press."

It was revealed in July that journalists from the News of the World, owned by Rupert Murdoch, had accessed the voice mail of Milly, 13, and deleted some messages, giving her parents false hope she was still alive. Unknown to the family, the phone was hacked by Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator working for the paper, between the time she was abducted in 2002 and when her body was found six months later.

The discovery transformed months of disclosures about the phone-hacking of celebrities into a scandal that appalled Britain.

It led to the closure of the best-selling Sunday paper and Mr Murdoch delivered a personal apology at a meeting with Milly's parents.

The British public remains infuriated by the newspaper's hacking of Milly's phone. "As if losing your daughter were not bad enough, the family has been put through hell by the media," said Diane Laithwaite, a housewife from Hastings. "I wonder how the journalists who did this sleep at night."

Stephen Wright, a lorry driver from London, added: "Nobody really cared when politicians' and celebrities' phones were hacked. They're fair game in a way. But to hack the phone of some kid who's been abducted, they're the actions of the lowest of the low."

The inquiry into the scandal is being chaired by Lord Justice Brian Leveson and was ordered by the British prime minister, David Cameron.

The actor Hugh Grant and JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter book series, were among those to give evidence later yesterday.

dsapsted@thenational.ae