Parents: Hacking made us think Milly was alive

November 21, 2011 - 7:35 AM
Britain Phone Hacking

British actor Hugh Grant arrives to give evidence at the the Leveson inquiry in London, Monday, Nov. 21, 2011. The Leveson inquiry is Britain's media ethics probe that was set up in the wake of the scandal over phone hacking at Rupert Murdoch's News of the World, which was shut in July after it became clear that the tabloid had systematically broken the law. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

LONDON (AP) — The mother of a murdered 13-year-old girl told a courtroom Monday that she believed her missing daughter was alive when she was able to leave a message on her phone voice mail — only to learn later the messages had been hacked by a tabloid newspaper.

Sally Dowler said that when she was able to reach her daughter Milly's previously full voice mailbox weeks after she disappeared in 2002, she shouted "She's picked up the voice mails! ... She's alive."

In fact, the messages had been deleted by someone working for the News of the World tabloid while the Dowlers and police were searching for Milly, who was later found dead.

The Dowlers were the first in a string of witnesses, including celebrities such as actor Hugh Grant, actress Sienna Miller, and author J.K. Rowling, who will testify to a judge-led inquiry set up by Prime Minister David Cameron that they were followed, photographed, entrapped and harassed by tabloid journalists.

The Dowlers also described their shock and anger when a private walk to retrace their missing daughter's steps was secretly photographed by the tabloid.

Sally Dowler said she and her husband Bob had no idea they were being observed as they walked near their home in May 2002, but days later saw the pictures in the News of the World.

"It just felt like such an intrusion into a really, really private grief moment," she said. The couple said they later realized that their own phone, as well as their daughter's, had been hacked.

Grant, a fierce critic of press intrusion, smiled for photographers as he arrived Monday morning at the Royal Courts of Justice, where the hearings are being held. The actor is due to testify later Monday about the harassment suffered by his ex, Tinglan Hong, since she became pregnant with the pair's child.

Later in the week come "Harry Potter" author Rowling, comedian Steve Coogan, Miller and former Formula 1 boss Max Mosley — whose taste for sadomasochism was revealed to the world in a widely publicized News of the World sting.

It's a courtroom lineup Britain's celebrity-obsessed tabloids would love, if only they weren't the ones in the dock.

Cameron set up the inquiry into media ethics and practices in the wake of a still-evolving scandal over phone hacking at the tabloid. Owner Rupert Murdoch shut down the paper in July after evidence emerged that it had routinely eavesdropped on the voice mails of public figures, celebrities and even crime victims in the search for scoops.

More than a dozen journalists and editors have been arrested, and several senior Murdoch executives have resigned over the still-evolving scandal.

The inquiry, led by judge Brian Leveson, could recommend major changes to the way the media in Britain is regulated.