Day 7: Journalists at the News of the World repeatedly told Surrey police that they had listened to messages on Milly Dowler’s phone, the hacking trial heard today. Senior members of staff investigating the 13-year-old’s disappearance told the force that the paper had heard her voicemails on at least three occasions, the Old Bailey heard.
Crime correspondent Ricky Sutton even “played a recording” of one of the hacked messages to the head of Surrey police media unit, prosecutor Mark Bryant-Heron revealed. Two others who told the force that the paper had heard Milly’s voicemails were the paper’s managing editor, Stuart Kuttner, and its chief investigative reporter, Neville Thurlbeck, he added.
Surrey police did not investigate phone hacking by the News of the World while they investigated Milly’s disappearance near her home in Walton on Thames, Surrey, on 21 March 2002.
However as a result of a new inquiry by the Metropolitan Police, Rebekah Brooks, News of the World editor at the time, her deputy Andy Coulson and Mr Kuttner are on trial at the Old Bailey accused of plotting to intercept messages – including Milly’s – to land exclusives.
Mr Bryant-Heron said that the News of the World had taken a close interest in Milly’s disappearance after hearing a message mistakenly left on her phone by a recruitment agency in Telford, Staffordshire. After misdialling one digit, a member of staff at Mondays agency seeking to contact a “Mandy” left a message inquiring whether she was available for work. The message began: “Oh, Mandy, this is Jo at Mondays recruitment agency. We are ringing because we have some interviews at Epson.”
After hacking the voicemail, the News of the World dispatched staff to Telford on Friday 13 April 2002 in the hope of finding Milly, whose full name was Amanda, clocking on at the Epson computer factory.
The paper failed to find her, however, because the message was a freak coincidence and by that time Milly had been murdered by the nightclub bouncer Levi Bellfield. But keen not to let go of the message, the News of the World printed a story on 15 April stating that it had been left by a hoaxer plaguing the inquiry, Mr Bryant-Heron said.
He added that the story, bylined Robert Kellaway, quoted the voicemail left by the recruitment agency almost verbatim. On double-checking the story with Surrey police that night, the paper removed details of the voicemail from an updated story in its second edition, which carried the byline of Sarah Arnold.
Mr Bryant-Heron read out a note made by a detective sergeant at Surrey police on Saturday 14 April after he had spoken by phone to Neville Thurlbeck, who was trying to verify the paper’s supposition that Milly was alive and working in a factory.
The officer wrote in the note: “Thurlbeck told me he had access to Milly’s voicemail with a PIN.” The sergeant added that Thurlbeck had quoted the PIN number, the message from Mondays recruitment agency and “said there were voicemail messages from a tearful relative and a young boy.” Thurlbeck, he said, had implied that Milly’s phone number had been obtained from school-friends.
The following week, on 20 April 2002, Mr Bryant-Heron explained, Mr Kuttner emailed a memo to Surrey police asking for further assistance on the News of the World’s “investigation” into Milly’s disappearance. Querying whether the force was correct to believe that the voicemail was a hoax, Mr Kuttner wrote: “We offered a copy of the tape recording of the messages”.
Later that day, Ricky Sutton, a crime reporter, “played a copy of these intercepted voicemails over the phone” to the head of Surrey police’s media unit, the prosecutor added.
For Mr Kuttner, Jonathan Caplan QC pointed out that in his memo to the police his client had been seeking to “alert” detectives to what he believed might have been a significant line of inquiry.
Mr Thurlbeck pleaded guilty to plotting to hack phones at an earlier hearing.
All defendants at the Old Bailey have pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to intercept voicemails and to all other charges. The case continues.