Was The Guardian at fault in suggesting that the News of the World had deleted Milly Dowler's voicemails, giving her parents the "false hope" that she was still alive? Not if you believe the barrage of self-justification put up by The Guardian's Nick Davies and his colleague David Leigh last week. Mr Davies contended in a letter to this paper that I was "wrong" to suggest that his 4 July story about the deletion was "not true".
Actually the essential facts are quite straightforward, though Mr Davies, and even more so Mr Leigh in a long and rambling piece in last Wednesday's Guardian, manage to muddy the waters. The 4 July online article, published in the newspaper on 5 July, was in large measure correct, but in one important, perhaps crucial, respect wrong. That is a matter of fact, not opinion.
I have in front of me a photocopy of the paper's front page of 5 July. The headline reads: "News of the World hacked Milly Dowler's phone during police hunt." There is a strap line beneath: "Exclusive [in red type] Paper deleted missing schoolgirl's voicemails, giving family false hope."
The headline is factually correct; the strap line, and the passages in the story that amplify it, are factually incorrect. So say the Metropolitan Police, and, as I wrote last week, The Guardian has itself accepted in an online posting, later repeated in the paper, 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".
Neither Mr Davies nor Mr Leigh can bring himself to be so clear. They both write of how the original story has now been "updated" in light of new information. This is sophistry. They should have had the grace to admit that Mr Davies and his co-author Amelia Hill wrongly included as fact a piece of incorrect information that had been passed to them, no doubt in good faith, by Mark Lewis, the Dowlers' solicitor. Mr Lewis knew that the News of the World had listened to Milly's voicemails, and he seemingly persuaded himself that it was responsible for the apparent deletion of a number of voicemails in the period between 21 and 24 March 2002.
What the article might reasonably have said was that the paper had hacked into Milly's phone, adding that it was also alleged it might have been responsible for the deletion of voicemails. In other words, it went further than it should have. A very good story was overegged. And, as a result, politicians, journalists and others cottoned on to the shocking, but untrue, revelation that the Sunday red-top had given the Dowlers the unfounded hope that their daughter was still alive.
We can't know whether the News of the World would have escaped closure, and the Leveson Inquiry never been set up, if this error had not been incorporated into the article, but they are arguable propositions, and Mr Davies and Mr Leigh should not inveigh against those who consider them. I am sorry Mr Davies will not admit fault. He deserves a great deal of praise for often single-handedly pursuing the phone-hacking story. Without him we would know only a fraction of the News of the World's misdemeanours.
Nonetheless, he represented as fact an allegation which we now know – and which he should openly concede – to have been wrong.
End of an era as the 'Eye' heads for a new vision
Richard Ingrams is today leaving Private Eye after nearly half a century, the first half of which was spent as its editor, the second as its chairman and éminence grise who has continued to co-write the funny bits in the second part of the magazine. It is, as they say, the end of an era – and an indisputably magnificent achievement.
Mr Ingrams says he has enjoyed doing the funny stuff less since Barry Fantoni left a year ago. His friends also detect a gradual growing apart from the magazine, a feeling of being on a different wavelength to some of the younger staff, whom he lampooned gently in a very amusing speech at Private Eye's recent 50th birthday party. Christopher Booker, its first and fleeting editor who helps write the funny bits, is thought quite likely to leave soon.
What of the magazine? It is to the credit of Ian Hislop, its editor since 1986, that he has changed relatively little, but now that Mr Ingrams is leaving, with Mr Booker possibly following not far behind, there may be more sweeping innovations.
This opens up the interesting possibility that some of its fictional characters might migrate to the increasingly successful Oldie magazine, edited by Mr Ingrams.
"Great Bores of Today" have already relocated with Mr Hislop's permission, and I would not be surprised to see the currently unfavoured Sid and Doris Bonkers joining them. He would not let Sylvie Krin or Glenda Slagg go without a fight, but who really owns them? And can they survive when their original creators have departed? One way or another, I expect there will be more changes than we have seen in Private Eye, and some in The Oldie.