Milly Dowler: Murdered schoolgirl at heart of hacking scandal

Editor’s Note:

Story highlights

Police said in 2011 that Milly Dowler's voicemail hacked by News of the World

Dowler was 13-year-old murdered by Levi Bellfield in southwest London

Milly described in court as funny and bright girl with normal family life

But she was troubled to have discovered her father's pornography recently

London CNN  — 

In the years leading up to 2011, several celebrities, royals and politicians had claimed to have had their phones hacked by News of The World. The paper’s royal editor and a private investigator had even been convicted of intercepting phone messages and spent time in prison. The story was covered on the inside pages of selected newspapers but failed to really capture the British public’s attention.

That all changed in July of that year when the Guardian reported that police suspected the cellphone of murdered teenager Milly Dowler had been hacked by News of the World and that messages had been deleted to free up space for new voicemail.

The allegations sparked outrage: amid condemnation from politicians on all sides of the spectrum, the paper’s boss Rupert Murdoch closed down the 168-year-old tabloid newspaper and paid Dowler’s parents and charities more than $4 million in compensation. At a parliamentary inquiry into the allegations, Murdoch declared: “This is the most humble day of my life.”

Timeline of phone-hacking scandal

When Milly’s parents appeared at the Leveson Inquiry set up by the government to investigate press ethics, they gave a raw assessment of the false hope that the deletion of messages had raised in the days after their daughter’s disappearance in March 2002.

“I rang her phone,” recalled Sally Dowler. “It clicked through on to her voicemail, so I heard her voice and it was just like, ‘she’s picked up her voicemail, she’s alive.’”

Tragically, those hopes were dashed and six months later Milly’s body was found in woodland in Hampshire in southern England. Although it was suspected that the deletion of the messages hampered the police investigation, the truth may have been more prosaic: later that year a lawyer acting for the country’s biggest force, the Metropolitan Police, said there was no evidence News of the World had been responsible for deleting the messages. The Guardian issued a clarification, but the damage had been done to News of the World and Murdoch’s reputation.

Whatever took place, the fact remains that it took police nine years to bring nightclub bouncer Levi Bellfield to justice. In June 2011 he was found guilty of murdering Milly Dowler and sentenced to life imprisonment. During the trial the jury was told Bellfield had previously murdered two other women and attempted to kill a fourth.

So who was the girl whose murder in a quiet suburb of southwest London led to the closure of the UK’s top-selling paper, suspicions of collusion between police officers and journalists, and at one time even threatened to topple Murdoch from the media group he had led for half a century? The scandal also led to charges being brought against several Murdoch employees, including two of Prime Minister David Cameron’s friends.

Press dishes it out, but can it take it?

Despite her extraordinary legacy, by most accounts Amanda Dowler, who was known as Milly, was a normal, bright 13-year-old schoolgirl who had a good relationship with her parents and elder sister Gemma. Her friends testified during Bellfield’s trial in London that she had a sunny personality and was her normal self on the day of her disappearance.

“She was one of the funniest people I had ever met,” Danielle Sykes said in a statement. “She would always be trying to make people laugh, joking and smiling.

“She was one of those sort of people that when she was happy she was exceptionally happy, an infectious personality. If she was sad about something she would be particularly sad and get upset. She valued her friendships and family a lot.”

Sykes, who was one of the last people to see Milly alive, said she ate chips with her friend in a café in Walton-on-Thames after school. “We parted and I gave her a hug and asked if she would be alright walking home on her own and she said, ‘Yeah, I’ll be absolutely fine.’

“I then turned around and shouted back at her ‘I would not tell anyone what we had been talking about.’”

Sykes added that they had been discussing a boy whom Milly fancied.

After the friends parted, Milly started to walk to her home nearby, but was snatched by Bellfield as she walked along a road.

Milly’s sister also told the court she knew instinctively something was wrong when she returned home to find the house empty. She said: “I knew Milly wouldn’t go out without telling Mum or Dad. I rang Milly’s mobile. It was switched off so I left a message on her answer phone telling her to come home because Dad was really annoyed.

“I was worried because Milly would always ring to tell us she was going to be late. It was so unusual for her not to be home on time. I knew instinctively something bad had happened to Milly and that she had been abducted.”

Milly’s disappearance sparked a nationwide search involving more than 100 police officers and a reconstruction of her last movements on the TV program “Crimewatch.” Detectives from Surrey police however suggested she had not been taken by force and had run away.

Some friends indeed portrayed a different side to Milly, suggesting she had been “distressed” at the time of disappearance, after finding bondage pornography belonging to her father Robert. Police initially considered him a suspect, but later apologized.

In a statement read to the court, Jacqueline Pignolly said: “Milly told me some pornographic magazines had been found in her Dad’s drawer.

“At the time Milly was a bit upset about it, not much for herself but her mum. I know that Milly did see them and there was more than one of them.”

During the trial Bellfield’s lawyers used this testimony, along with a “goodbye” note that Milly had written to her parents and a poem in which she said “I hate myself,” to paint a picture of the teenager as unhappy and distressed. His tactics caused great distress to the family, but the jury failed to believe his plea of innocence.

Geoffrey Wansell, the author of a book on Bellfield, “The Bus Stop Killer,” told CNN that in the wake of the 2011 trial, during which the Dowlers were pilloried by the tabloids over the pornography revelations, the family grew to loathe the press. It was in this atmosphere that the revelation was made about the hacking of Milly’s phone, which became, according to Wansell, “the defining moment from which News of the World could not recover.”

“I don’t think it’s as simple as the fact that Milly Dowler’s phone was hacked and that led to the end of the News of the World. I think there are more layers to the story than that, and we may never know what actually happened.”