Almost ten years ago, a 13-year-old girl named Milly Dowler disappeared on her way to school, and a desperate six-month search began. In the first days after her disappearance, family members and investigators were encouraged by the fact that although there was no word from Milly, voicemail messages were being deleted from her phone, presumably by Milly. New allegations are emerging, however, that a British newspaper called News of the World hired a private investigator to gain access to Dowler’s voicemails, and deleted messages when the voicemail box became full, thus misleading Milly’s family and the people who were trying to solve her murder. Her body was found six months after her disappearance.
The Milly Dowler case was extremely high-profile, and culminated last month in the conviction of Levi Bellfield, a former doorman, on charges of kidnapping and murder. According to Mark Lewis, the Dowler family’s attorney, it caused the family “distress heaped upon tragedy to learn that the News of the World had no humanity at such a terrible time. The fact that they were prepared to act in such a heinous way that could have jeopardized the police investigation and give them false hope is despicable.”
The revelations are, needless to say, raising questions about media ethics and ordinary people’s privacy. ”The Milly Dowler story has taken this from an issue for people who are concerned about media ethics to one that is of broader concern to the general public,” Tim Luckhurst, a journalism professor, told the New York Times. “News Corporation thought they could put a lid on this, and this has blown the lid right off.”
Much of the controversy is centering upon Rebekah Brooks, an executive with the News Corporation of Britain, who was the editor of News of the World at the time of the hacking. Several British politicians have spoken out about the scandal, including Ed Milibrand, the leader of the Labour party, who said,
“It wasn’t a rogue reporter. It wasn’t just one individual. This was a systematic series of things that happened and what I want from executives at News International is people to start taking responsibility for this.”
Prime Minister David Cameron added that the police “should investigate this without any fear, without any favor, without any worry about where the evidence should lead them.”
Brooks didn’t deny the allegations, but she also claimed that she had no knowledge of the hacking. However, there are concerns that this is a widespread practice conducted by British tabloids. News of the World has paid damages to Sienna Miller, among other celebrities, and other people are suing, saying that their voicemails were also hacked.
Perhaps one of the most disturbing elements of this story is that ordinary people can be the victims of these privacy-invasion techniques, not just celebrities. By hacking and deleting the missing girl’s voicemail messages, the newspaper’s private investigator not only set back a police search, they gave the family false hope. Ironically enough, the newspaper even stooped so low as to interview family members about their hopes for Milly’s reappearance, which were in large part based on the deleted voicemails. What’s clear is this: privacy is at stake, and tabloids need to be checked in their attempts to get juicy stories at all costs.
Photo from William Hook’s Flickr photostream.