- THE SUNDAY PEOPLE newspaper allegedly set hacking-linked firm on tragic Milly Dowler
- SIMILAR REVELATIONS revelations forced rival tabloid the News Of The World to close down
- EDITOR at the time Neil Wallis later walked free from old bailey after different hacking allegations
- PRESS REFORM campaigners say revelation shows need for Leveson part 2, but;
- MIRROR GROUP newspapers has yet to address the claims, raised in documents at the High Court in London
MURDERED schoolgirl Milly Dowler and her family were targeted by shadowy private investigators commissioned by the Sunday People newspaper, explosive High Court documents have revealed.
Executives at the tabloid allegedly paid PI firm Starbase – which has been connected extensively to cases of phone hacking – as police searched for the missing 13-year-old in March 2002.
The allegations were made in a legal document, known as a skeleton argument, filed for and deployed at a High Court hearing in November last year.
The evidence has emerged just as Prince Harry joined the same Group Action, as exclusively revealed by Byline Investigates, last year.
The Milly Dowler revelation comes eight years after Sunday rival the News of the World closed in disgrace over its own hacking of Milly’s phone – also in March 2002 – before the paper’s owner Rupert Murdoch issued a personal apology and paid her family an out-of-court settlement of £1m.
Now, previously unpublished court documents seen by this website, allege The Sunday People also put the Dowlers under “unlawful” surveillance before publishing a major story 10 days after the schoolgirl disappeared.
The article (pictured above) also refers to an unnamed 12-year-old friend of Milly’s who came forward with information for the Police which, at the time, seemed a promising lead into her disappearance, although she was later found to be a victim of serial killer Levi Bellfield.
The skeleton argument, filed last November at the Rolls Building in London as part of the third wave of the long-running Mirror Newspapers Hacking Litigation (MNHL), describe invoices from Starbase, relating to Milly Dowler, and only disclosed by MGN when compelled by a court order early last year.
In them, counsel for 71 claimants currently suing Reach PLC’s publisher subsidiary Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN), David Sherborne, said: “The invoices referred to… demonstrate Unlawful Information Gathering (UIG) in relation to the Milly Dowler story.”
Under the title: “Targeting those related to Milly Dowler and her disappearance”, he added: “The documents evidence MGN’s commissioning of a private investigator, Starbase, which, the Claimants allege, was involved in voicemail interception (as well as other UIG [Unlawful News Gathering]).”
He went on to point out that the judge in the case had already ruled that illegal news-gathering was endemic at the three Mirror Group Newspapers national titles, of which The Sunday People is one.
Mr Sherborne said: “The fact that these activities were used even in relation to such an extreme and sensitive case as Milly Dowler only serves to demonstrate the extent and habitual use of UIG at MGN.”
Byline Investigates’ reporters were in the High Court on November 12, 2019, when we obtained the legal documents.
However, we have decided to share our exclusive story, and the underlying paperwork, with the BBC.
Reach PLC has yet to comment, or plead a defence, to the incendiary Milly Dowler allegation, which could reignite the public outrage that forced the NotW to close after 168 years in print for targeting Milly – at the same time as it is now alleged The Sunday People was also doing so.
The matter is likely to be raised, and may get a fuller hearing, at the High Court during a Case Management Conference in the Mirror Group Hacking Litigation scheduled for Tuesday this week, which Byline Investigates will be reporting from.
Of the latest revelations, Nick Davies, the former Guardian investigative journalist who broke the News of the World Milly hacking story, told Byline Investigates: “The more we find out about all this, the easier it is to understand why Fleet Street worked so hard to stop us having a decent independent regulator of the kind which (Lord Justice) Leveson recommended. They have a great deal of crime to hide.”
“And they continue to be driven by the same ruthless quest for profit which led them to commit those crimes – and which still encourages them to break rules and to deal in cynical falsehood.”
Milly Dowler and her family were allegedly targeted by The Sunday People in 2002, when Piers Morgan was the most powerful news executive in the Mirror Group stable, and editor of its sister paper, the Daily Mirror.
The allegations raise questions about whether similar illegal checks were carried-out on the Dowlers by the Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror, given that a High Court judgment in 2015 found industrial-scale hacking was widespread at both titles.
Piers Morgan has always issued carefully worded denials that he ever hacked phones himself, or formally asked anyone to do so.
The Good Morning Britain presenter also claims that he didn’t know hacking was going-on, even though mass interceptions were orchestrated by some of his closest colleagues.
Hundreds of thousands of pounds were spent on illegal PIs by his news desk and his reporters.
However, commentators have pointed out that, if he did not know the real source of some of the biggest stories that he published, then he was the most incompetent editor ever to work in the British newspaper industry.
Others have said that Prince Harry’s law suit against the Mirror is thought to be the real reason behind Morgan stepping-up his recent vituperative personal attacks against Harry and his wife Meghan Markle in the Mail OnLine, and on social media.
The Duke of Sussex’s claim is likely to allege that Piers Morgan’s Daily Mirror was hacking his phone and that of his mother, Princess Diana.
Amongst the 71 claimants who are suing MGN, are comic and author David Walliams, ex-footballer Ian Wright and Anthea Turner, one of Piers Morgan’s predecessors as host of GMTV on ITV.
AT THE TIME of the alleged incident, The Sunday People was under the control of controversial editor Neil ‘Wolfman’ Wallis, who left the paper in 2003 to become deputy editor of the News of the World.
The court documents, seen by Byline Investigates, do not allege that he was involved in commissioning the Starbase work.
However, it is not the first time one of Wallis’s newspapers – and indeed Wallis himself – has been accused of illegal journalism.
In 2014 Wallis was charged with conspiring to intercept communications, relating to his time as Deputy Editor of the News of the World, after he had left The Sunday People in 2003. In 2015 he appeared at the Old Bailey, where he was cleared after a four-day deliberation by the jury.
He denied under oath listening to a tape recording of a hacked phone message, ever referring to the “screwing” of phones at a job interview with whistle-blower journalist Dan Evans (pictured above), or telling Evans he was a “company man” after the hacking of the phone of James Bond actor Daniel Craig.
Wallis’s defence was that as the News of the World’s representative on the Editors’ Code of Practice Committee of the Press Complaints Commission – an industry self-regulator ultimately dissolved as the scale of its failure to tackle phone hacking among its national tabloid cohort became apparent – all those of his underlings who were responsible for phone-hacking had successfully concealed their activities from him.
Outside court, Wallis attacked the case against him as part of a “vicious politically driven campaign” against the Press.
Wallis left newspapers for public relations in 2009, working closely with the Metropolitan Police, until question marks over his professional relationship with Chief Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson forced the latter to resign as the UK’s most senior policeman.
It was later alleged that Wallis instructed a reporter to destroy evidence that would connect them to the News Of The World’s hacking of former Home Secretary David Blunkett’s phone.
Wallis has always denied an improper relationship with Sir Paul Stephenson and knowing about the hacking of the former Labour MP’s phone.
In his second witness statement to the Leveson Inquiry, he claimed that he had met the then Commissioner six times a year while he was Deputy Editor of the News Of The World “to give him informal PR advice”.
Last night Press standards campaigner Professor Brian Cathcart said of the new revelations about The Sunday People court claims: “This extremely serious allegation – made in formal court documents – dramatically raises the stakes in terms of the investigation of criminality at these papers.
“After all this time we see the shocking possibility that a second newspaper paper was illegally hacking Milly Dowler’s phone. If it’s true, we need to know who authorised it and how many people knew?
“The Metropolitan Police have so far refused to take this matter in hand and the civil courts are not the right place to get to the bottom of it. Only part two of the Leveson Inquiry can get to the bottom of all this. We need it now.”
The case continues…