LONDON – The mother of a murdered girl told a British courtroom Monday she believed her missing 13-year-old was still alive once she reached the girl’s previously full voice mailbox – only to learn later that her daughter’s phone had been hacked into by a tabloid.
Sally Dowler said when she could finally leave a message on her daughter Milly’s voice mail weeks after the girl disappeared in 2002, she shouted “She’s picked up the voice mails! … She’s alive!”
In fact, messages on Milly’s phone had been deleted by someone working for the News of the World tabloid while the Dowlers and the police were still searching for Milly, who was later found dead.
The Dowlers were the first in a string of high-profile witnesses, including celebrities such as Hugh Grant, Sienna Miller and author J.K. Rowling, testifying before a judicial inquiry set up by Prime Minister David Cameron on how they were followed, photographed, entrapped and harassed by tabloid journalists.
The Dowlers also described their shock and anger when a private walk to retrace their missing daughter’s last steps was secretly photographed by the tabloid.
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Sally Dowler said she and her husband Bob had no idea they were being observed as they walked near their home in May 2002, but days later saw the pictures in the News of the World.
“It just felt like such an intrusion into a really, really private grief moment,” she said. The couple said they later realized that their own phone, as well as their daughter’s, had been hacked.
The Dowlers took the stand together and spoke in quiet, composed voices during their 30 minutes of nationally televised testimony. They described a tense July meeting with media mogul Rupert Murdoch, owner of the now shuttered News of the World, when he apologized for the hacking.
“It was a very tense meeting,” Sally Dowler said. “He was very sincere.”
Cameron set up the inquiry into media ethics in the wake of a still-evolving scandal over phone hacking in Britain. Murdoch shut down the tabloid in July after evidence emerged that it had routinely eavesdropped on the voice mails of public figures, celebrities and even crime victims in its search for scoops.
More than a dozen News of the World journalists and editors have been arrested, and several senior Murdoch executives have resigned over the still-evolving scandal. Two top London police officers were forced to resign, along with Cameron’s top media adviser.
The inquiry, led by judge Brian Leveson, could recommend major changes to the way the media in Britain is regulated.
The second witness was journalist and novelist Joan Smith, whose phone was hacked while she was in a relationship with a politician, Denis MacShane. Smith said she was shocked when police told her that her details had been found in the notebooks of private eye Glenn Mulcaire, who worked for the News of the World and was jailed in 2007 for phone hacking.
“I don’t think I’m somebody whose private life would be of much interest to the reading public,” she said. “This could happen to almost anybody. That’s the astonishing thing. You don’t have to be an incredibly famous actress or actor … you just have to tangentially come into the orbit of somebody who is well known.”
She said Britain’s tabloid culture was out of control.
“The people involved have lost any sense that they are dealing with human beings,” she said. “We’re just fodder for stories.”
Grant, a fierce critic of press intrusion, smiled for photographers as he arrived at the Royal Courts of Justice, where the hearings are being held. The actor is due to testify later Monday about the harassment suffered by his ex, Tinglan Hong, since she became pregnant with the pair’s child.
Later in the week the inquiry will hear from “Harry Potter” author Rowling, comedian Steve Coogan, actress Miller and former Formula 1 boss Max Mosley – whose taste for sadomasochism was revealed to the world in a widely publicized News of the World sting.
It’s a courtroom lineup Britain’s celebrity-obsessed tabloids would love, if only they weren’t the ones in the dock.
Associated Press writer Raphael G. Satter contributed to this report.