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British Tabloid Hacked Missing Girl’s Phone, Lawyer Says

The cellphone of a British schoolgirl who went missing in 2002 and whose murdered body was discovered six months later was repeatedly hacked by the News of the World tabloid at a time when no one knew what had happened to her, a lawyer for her family said Monday.

Emma Innocenti | Getty Images

According to the lawyer, Mark Lewis, the newspaper not only intercepted messages left on the phone of the girl, Milly Dowler, 13, by her increasingly frantic family after her disappearance, but also deleted some of those messages when her voice mailbox became full—thus making room for new ones and listening to those in turn. This confused investigators and gave false hope to Milly’s relatives, who believed it showed she was still alive and deleting the messages herself, Mr. Lewis said.

In a statement, Mr. Lewis called the newspaper’s actions “heinous” and “despicable,” and said the Dowler family had suffered “distress heaped upon tragedy” upon learning that News of the World “had no humanity at such a terrible time.”

The British Prime Minister David Cameron, while on a visit to Afghanistan, put more pressure on the newspaper on Tuesday, calling the allegations shocking. ‘‘If they are true, this is a truly dreadful act and a truly dreadful situation,’’ he said, according to comments carried by The Associated Press.

The disclosures, reported first in The Guardian, came as part of a broader police investigation into News of the World’s routine practice of intercepting the cellphone messages of celebrities, politicians and other public figures in the mid-2000s. The newspaper has admitted that it did so in some cases, and has paid damages to the actress Sienna Miller and others. Numerous other people who say that their phones were hacked are suing the paper.

But the revelations about Milly Dowler are significant for two reasons. The first is that the alleged hacking in this case occurred in 2002—five years before News of the World’s chief royal reporter, Clive Goodman, was jailed along with Glenn Mulcaire, an investigator hired by the paper, after they were found guilty of intercepting the phone messages of members of the royal family. The Dowler case is the first to indicate publicly that similar behavior had occurred before.

The second is that in 2002, the editor of News of the World was Rebekah Brooks, a confidant and favorite of Rupert Murdoch, whose corporation owns the paper. Ms. Brooks, who is now chief executive of News International, the British newspaper division of Mr. Murdoch’s News Corporation, has always denied knowing anything about phone hacking at any Murdoch-owned papers. In an e-mail she sent to employees on Tuesday, she repeated that assertion, The Guardian reported.

“I hope that you all realise it is inconceivable that I knew or worse, sanctioned these appalling allegations,’’ she wrote in the e-mail. She also said, “It is almost too horrific to believe that a professional journalist or even a freelance inquiry agent working on behalf of a member of the News of the World staff could behave in this way.’’

If Mr. Lewis’s accusations about hacking during the Dowler case prove accurate, it would mean either that Ms. Brooks had no idea how the paper she edited was obtaining information about the Dowler family for its articles, or that she knew about the hacking and allowed it.

Evidence that News of the World had hacked into Milly’s cellphone and into the phones of her family members was found in notebooks belonging to Mr. Mulcaire that were turned over to the police as part of a wider investigation, The Guardian reported.

Mr. Lewis told the BBC that the police had notified Milly Dowler’s parents that “News of the World, or Glenn Mulcaire, was hacking into Milly Dowler’s phone while she was a missing person.”

“You have to ask the question: who was at the News of the World thinking it was appropriate to try and hack into the phone of a missing young girl, and what was Glenn Mulcaire thinking of at the time to take those instructions?” he said. “Both of them should have had common decency, moral right, to turn around and say, no, they weren’t prepared to do that.”

In a statement, News of the World said it was cooperating with the police and added, “This particular case is clearly a development of great concern.”

And in her e-mail, Ms. Brooks said: “If the allegations are proved to be true then I can promise the strongest possible action will be taken as this company will not tolerate such disgraceful behaviour.’’

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