Nine years ago, British tabloid News of the World hacked into the voicemail of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, leading her parents to hope, falsely, that she might be alive and checking her phone. Today, her parents shared their heartbreak as witnesses before the U.K. government’s inquiry into the phone hacking scandal engulfing Rupert Murdoch‘s media empire.
Actor Hugh Grant is also scheduled to testify before the so-called Leveson inquiry today, to be followed this week by 21 other alleged hacking victims, including Harry Potter author JK Rowling and actor Sienna Miller.
The case has no shortage of high-profile witnesses, but it is self-described “ordinary people” Sally and Bob Dowler who may provide the most damaging testimony. The Dowlers, who accepted a personal apology and £2 million in compensation from Rupert Murdoch four months ago, described before the committee their sense of euphoria when they discovered their 13-year-old daughter’s voicemail messages had been deleted after she disappeared. “I told my friends, ‘She’s picked up her voicemail, she’s picked up her voicemail!'” Sally Dowler testified. Milly’s body was found six months later, but it was not until July of this year that it was revealed the News of the World had hacked into her phone.
The Dowlers went on to describe how News of the World followed and photographed them as they retraced the route where Milly had vanished while walking home from school. “On the Sunday that photograph appeared in the News of the World, and I can remember seeing it and I was really cross,” said Sally Dowler. “How on earth did they know we were doing that walk on that day? It just felt like such an intrusion into that really private moment.”
The couple made a plea to the press to consider carefully how they get their scoops, “because the ramifications are more than just another story in the press.” With damning allegations — including “industrial scale” surveillance of public figures by News of the World — threatening to topple his media empire, Murdoch must now understand this as well as anyone.