The phone hacking story will not go away.  Yesterday, saw the biggest news story in the case for some time.  The Guardian reported that the voicemails of the murdered schoolgirl, Milly Dowler, were hacked into by “News of the World” journalists shortly after her disappearance in March 2002.   It was suggested that her voicemails were deleted by the “News of the World” “in order to free up space for more messages”.  This meant that her friends and relatives wrongly concluded that she might still be alive. Surrey Police investigating her disappearance feared evidence may have been destroyed.  Unsurprisingly, the Dowler family were reported to have reacted with “shock and disgust“.

This development has a number of important features.  First, the alleged hacking took place in 2002 – more than a year before most of the cases reported to date.  Second, there is a suggestion of a direct connection between private investigator Steve Whittamore (the ‘blagger’ convicted after “Operation Motorman“) – who is said to have obtained the initial information – and Glenn Mulcaire (the “phone hacking expert”).  Third, the alleged hacking took place when Rebekah Brooks was the editor of the “News of the World”.  Previously the hacking allegations related to the editorship of her successor Andy Coulson.  As the “Independent” put it: “Brooks has some explaining to do“.

The BBC’s political correspondent, Nick Robinson, suggests that the story has changed the character of the phone hacking saga.  He writes:

For a long time the hacking story united those who’d always been hostile to the Murdoch empire with those angered by its switch from backing New Labour to supporting the Tories, and those who saw it as a way to damage David Cameron (who hired the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his spin doctor).

Now Murdoch, Brooks and Cameron will be aware that for the first time the hacking story may be engaging and horrifying readers, viewers and voters.

In another, unrelated, but important development, it was reported yesterday that Colin Stagg – the man wrongly accused of the murder of Rachel Nickell – was a phone hacking target.  It is suggested that, in his case, the information goes back to 2000.    This is the earliest phone hacking alleged against the “News of the World” so far.   If true it takes the story back 6 years before the arrest of Glenn Mulcaire and gives an even longer time scale for hacking activities.  In the “Guardian” yesterday Nick Davies reported that

“One of Brooks’s first acts on taking over as editor of the News of the World in 2000 was to bring back Greg Miskiw from New York, where he had just arrived as US correspondent, to appoint him as her assistant editor in charge of news. It was Miskiw who then hired a full-time private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, who proceeded to steal confidential data and hack voicemail in order to provide stories for the paper.

These new allegations have led to renewed calls for a public inquiry into phone hacking.  Speaking on Radio 4, Tom Watson MP called for a public inquiry into all these matters.  Yesterday he told an interviewer:

“Very senior people in Parliament including Lord Fowler have called for a public inquiry. Given the heinous allegations that have been made, I don’t think it unreasonable now that we hear from them, they should speak out and they should say that when the criminal investigations are over, we need a full public inquiry to get to the facts of this case”.