The British phone hacking scandal has reached new lows after it was revealed that News of the World intercepted and deleted voicemail messages on the phone of missing British teen Milly Dowler.
Milly’s parents Sally and Bob Dowler said that they had been given “false hope” that their daughter could still be alive after she had gone missing, as the deleted messages indicated to them that she was still checking her phone.
Instead, an investigation revealed that the tabloid newspaper was listening to and then deleting the 13 year-olds cell phone messages in order to free space on the messaging system.
Not only did the deleting of messages give the family false hopes, but police fear it could also have erased evidence that would have assisted their investigation.
The Guardian newspaper investigation has shown that within a very short time of Milly vanishing, News of the World journalists reacted by engaging in ‘what was standard practice in their newsroom: they hired private investigators to get them a story.’
The Dowlers' family lawyer, Mark Lewis, issued a statement condemning the News of the World's activities.
"It is distress heaped upon tragedy to learn that the News of the World had no humanity at such a terrible time. The fact that they were prepared to act in such a heinous way that could have jeopardized the police investigation and give them false hope is despicable," Lewis said.
He said the Dowler family was now pursuing a damages claim against the News of the World.
The allegations – already part of an extensive investigation into illegal phone tapping by British newspapers – have shocked politicians and the public.
Many previous victims of phone hacking were celebrities and politicians, who are now taking legal action against the mainly Rupert Murdoch run press.
Scotland Yard refused to comment on the Dowler case, but a senior police source told the Telegraph: “This was a gross, gross breach of journalistic standards. Really terrible. We are only just beginning to see the scale of what was going on.”
A News International spokesman said, "We have been co-operating 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 inquiry as a result."
Milly Dowler disappeared on her way home in Surrey, near London, on 21 March 2002.