In all the analysis of Lord Justice Leveson’s report into press ethics there has been one rather uncomfortable truth that has been ignored.
The key point of the story by The Guardian that shut the News of the World was incorrect.
If you don’t believe me, ask The Guardian themselves. Here is the correction that they had to print on the original story:
The following was published on 12 December 2011 in the corrections and clarifications column: An article about the investigation into the abduction and death of Milly Dowler (News of the World hacked Milly Dowler’s phone during police hunt, 5 July, page 1) stated that voicemail “messages were deleted by [NoW] journalists in the first few days after Milly’s disappearance in order to free up space for more messages. As a result friends and relatives of Milly concluded wrongly that she might still be alive.” Since this story was published new evidence – as reported in the Guardian of 10 December – has led the Metropolitan police to believe that this was unlikely to have been correct and that while the News of the World hacked Milly Dowler’s phone the newspaper is unlikely to have been responsible for the deletion of a set of voicemails from the phone that caused her parents to have false hopes that she was alive, according to a Metropolitan police statement made to the Leveson inquiry on 12 December.
A few things need to be stated here, less anyone misunderstand my intention. News of the World journalists did hack Milly Dowler’s phone when she was missing, eventually to have been discovered to be murdered by Levi Bellfield. This is cruel, immoral, disgraceful behaviour and The Guardian were right to report on it as part of their investigation. It is an outrageous breach of privacy, but in all likelihood this foul conduct did not give the Dowler family the mistaken hope that their daughter was still alive. Instead, it is quite likely that the phone company automatically deleted Milly Dowler’s old voicemail messages, not journalists.
The Guardian published their deletion claims as part of a front page splash. The apology appeared only in the corrections column, instead of being the equally prominent correction they demand from others.
Lord Justice Leveson referred to the Dowler story specifically:
“The fact remains that the NoW hacked the phone of a dead schoolgirl called Milly Dowler. The revelation of that story rightly shocked the public conscience in a way that other stories of phone hacking may not have, but it also gave momentum to growing calls for light to be shed on an unethical and unlawful practice of which there were literally thousands of victims. In that context, whether or not NoW journalists had caused the ‘false hope’ moment is almost irrelevant.”
I totally disagree with his characterisation of the false hope moment as “irrelevant”. How can it be? We were all horrified at the thought that Sally and Bob Dowler had wrongly been given hope that their schoolgirl daughter was alive, because of the misconduct of journalists. When we found out that the privacy of murdered Sarah Payne’s mother have been violated, and her phone hacked, the outcry was not the same. This shows the emotional tug of the “false hope” claims, and significance that they had for public feeling towards the News of the World.
The revulsion we all felt at the suffering of the Dowlers is ultimately what did for The News of the World.
For Leveson to say that had the comments on deletion been “couched in more cautious or less certain terms [it] may not have been capable of criticism at all” is ridiculous. Indeed, a police report said we may never know the truth about the deletion of Milly Dowler’s phone messages. In the original story they had said that “the messages were deleted by journalists in the first few days after Milly’s disappearance in order to free up space for more messages.” That story now has to have the aforementioned correction at the bottom.
Why did The Guardian print their claims as fact originally?
The phone hacking and other vile tactics that went on on Fleet Street were rightly investigated. Media practises clearly need to change. However, it would serve us well to remember that what prompted the closure of an 150 year old British paper, and cost good journalists their jobs, was an inaccurate story run by a paper that wants to be the moral bastions of us all.