A British tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch is being accused of hacking into the phone of a missing girl, Milly Dowler, who was found murdered six months after she disappeared in the spring of 2002.
News of the World has previously been found liable for invading the privacy of its story subjects. The company has admitted to hacking into the phones of eight public figures, including Sienna Miller. Earlier this year, the tabolid settled with Miller for £100,000 (about $165,000 USD) in a privacy and harassment claim over allegations that reporters of Murdoch's News Corporation illegally listened to voice messages to scoop stories.
The case of Milly Dowler is much more serious, as it involves a kidnapping and murder case. Further, News of the World is accused of not only listening to messages, but deleting messages in order to make room for new ones, which potentially interfered with the missing person investigation and certainly provided Dowler's family with false hope that the young teenager was still alive.
The Guardian was the first to report on the allegations, and used definitive language in the article's opening statement:
The New of the World illegally targeted the missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler and her family in March 2002, interfering with police inquiries into her disappearance, an investigation by the Guardian has established.
The new accusations of hacking incidents that took place almost a decade ago have shifted attention to Rebekah Brooks, who is now the chief executive of News International and one of Murdoch's closest colleagues. Brooks has long insisted she had no knowledge of any phone hacking incidents at Murdoch properties, and until now this claim has been unchallenged. But Milly Dowler's case took place in 2002, when Brooks was editor of News of the World, and five years before a News of the World reporter and a hired investigator were found guilty of hacking into royal family phones - which was believed to be the first case of illegal interception on the part of the tabloid.
Brooks maintains that she had no knowledge of or participation in News of The World's hacking into Dowler's phone, and so far is not succumbing to pressure that she step down.
The Guardian published excerpts of the email Brooks sent out to employees today:
It is inconceivable that I knew or worse, sanctioned these appalling allegations. I am aware of the speculation about my position. Therefore it is important you all know that as chief executive, I am determined to lead the company to ensure we do the right thing and resolve these serious issues.
Brooks later added: I am sickened that these events are alleged to have happened. Not just because I was editor of the News of the World at the time, but if the accusations are true, the devastating effect on Milly Dowler's family is unforgivable.
As the New York Times pointed out, if the allegations prove to be accurate - and so far, no one is denying the hacking took place - Brooks would then appear to have had no knowledge or control over how her reporters were obtaining the information on the Dowler case, or it would seem she permitted the interceptions. Whatever the case, it is difficult to imagine that her job and credibility will not be in serious jeapordy.
Amanada 'Milly' Dowler was 13 when she went missing on her way home from an afterschool social activity on March 21, 2002. A massive inquiry was launched shortly after her parents reported her missing - at 7 p.m. that same day - but it was six months before her body was found in a remote wooded area about 25 miles from her family's Surrey, England home.
Nine years later, on June 23, 2011, serial killer Levi Bellfield was convicted of abducting and murdering Dowler. Bellfield had previously been employed as a club doorman and lived only 50 yards from where Dowler was last seen alive. He moved out of the apartment the day after Milly disappeared, but the mismanagement of the case by Surrey police delayed his identification as a suspect for several years. In 2003-2004, he killed two other women and attempted to murder at least one other, but may have attacked up to twenty women.
News of the World is among dozens of holdlings of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, which is the world's second largest media conglomerate behind the Walt Disney Company. Murdoch is ranked by Forbes as the 13th most powerful person in the world, and ranks at number 112 on their richest person list, with an estimated net worth of $7.6 billion.