Ian Burrell: A rather modest retraction for a story that has changed so much

Long experience has taught me that The Guardian does not like admitting it has got things wrong, so I am not at all surprised by the way it has handled a correction to what may well be the most explosive and influential story it has ever published. On 4 July, the paper "splashed" with the revelation that the mobile phone of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler had been hacked by the News Of The World, or by the private investigator Glenn Mulcaire acting on its behalf.

According to The Guardian: "The messages were deleted by journalists in the first few days after Milly's disappearance in order to free up space for more messages. As a result, relatives of Milly concluded wrongly that she might be alive."

This story created uproar in the Commons and the media. David Cameron described the paper's behaviour as "disgusting". Two days later he announced the Leveson Inquiry. Three days later Rupert Murdoch said that the News Of The World would close. On 13 July he was forced to pull the plug on his bid for the 61 per cent of BSkyB he does not own. It is not too much to say that that The Guardian's story of 4 July transformed what had been a discreditable saga about the Sunday tabloid's phone hacking of celebrities into a sensational scandal.

A pity, then, that it was not true. Two days ago, The Guardian posted this correction at the top of its online version of the 4 July story: "Evidence secured by the police following the publication of this article has established that the News Of The World was not responsible for the deletion of voicemails which caused Milly Dowler's parents to have false hope that she was alive." Perhaps you should read that again. The paper's central and most damaging allegation against the News Of The World turns out not to have been correct.

Some people might think The Guardian owes us a more comprehensive apology than a brief posting at the top of an online article published five months ago. But the paper's editor, Alan Rusbridger, does not like apologising since to do so would suggest that, even though he inhabits the upper reaches of Mount Olympus, he is made of flesh and blood like the rest of us. He did carry a story two days ago on page nine under the headline "Police logs raise questions over the deletion of Dowler voicemails", but it did not contain the blunt admission of error conveyed by the posting, far less an apology. Ironically, it was co-written by Nick Davies, one of the co-authors of the 4 July article.

Without offering any proof, Saturday's piece maintained that News Of The World journalists did listen to Milly Dowler's voicemails, and suggests that by doing so they "probably were responsible for deleting some of the missing girl's messages" which, unbeknownst to them, automatically deleted themselves 72 hours after being listened to.

If this allegation is true – and, coming as it does from the same police sources behind the 4 July story, and repeated as it is by Nick Davies, it should be treated with caution – it is still some way from the original suggestion that the News Of The World or Glenn Mulcaire deliberately deleted Milly's voicemails.

Does any of this matter? The News Of The World still has a great deal to answer for. It stands accused of hacking the mobile phones of about 800 people, though this figure, released by the police on Saturday, is considerably less than was once thought. But I would suggest that, if The Guardian had not published its inaccurate 4 July allegation in the sensational terms it did, events could have gone differently. The Sunday red-top might not have been closed by a panic-stricken Rupert Murdoch, and the Leveson Inquiry might not have been set up by an equally panic-stricken David Cameron.

Needless to say, it is too late to stop the caravan now, but I wonder whether, as he lies awake at night, Mr Rusbridger occasionally examines his conscience. If, as seems not unlikely, we end up with a less free press, it may at least in part be the result of The Guardian making an incorrect allegation which it has now furtively retracted.

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