News of the World ‘targeted missing schoolgirl’

By Ian Dunt

News of the World allegedly hacked into the voicemail of a missing school girl in 2002, giving her family false hope for her survival and potentially deleting important evidence.

The new report, which stems from an investigation by the Guardian newspaper, is one of the most serious allegations to emerge from the ongoing phone-hacking scandal. It is also likely to pile further pressure on Rebekah Brooks of News International and Andy Coulson, former director of communications at No 10.

It could also complicate Rupert Murdoch's attempt to gain control of BSkyB, which is still being considered by media secretary Jeremy Hunt.

Detectives investigating the phone-hacking scandal through Operation Weeting are believed to have found evidence that the phone of Milly Dowler, who disappeared aged 13 in March 2002, was hacked into by private investigators working for the News of the World.

Records of the hacking are believed to have been found in notes kept by Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator at the heart of the scandal.

News of the World journalists then allegedly listened in to all the calls made from the phone, including what were presumably highly emotional messages left by family and friends.

When they became concerned that the space was filling up, they deleted some of the existing messages. This action led the family of the missing school girl to hope that she may have done so. Unfortunately, that hope was misplaced.

Police are also understood to fear that evidence was destroyed when the deletions took place.

The Dowler family even granted an exclusive interview to News of the World where they discussed their hope that their daughter was still alive.

News International, parent company for the Murdoch-owned newspaper, said the development was "of great concern".

It added: "We have been cooperating fully with Operation Weeting since our voluntary disclosure in January restarted the investigation into illegal voicemail interception. This particular case is clearly a development of great concern and we will be conducting our own inquiries as a result. We will obviously cooperate fully with any police request on this should we be asked."

Speaking in the Commons this afternoon, Labour MP Tom Watson said: "As well as being a despicable and evil act that will shock parents up and down the land to the very core, it also strongly suggests parliament was misled in the Press Standards inquiry held by the DCMS [Department of Culture, Media and Sport] select committee in 2010."

The Dowler family lawyer described the activities as "heinous".