'She has picked up her voicemails, Bob. She is alive!'

Milly Dowler's mother tells inquiry of false hopes raised by hacking

The psychological trauma inflicted by phone hacking was revealed in full yesterday when the parents of Milly Dowler relived the elation and hope they felt upon suddenly reaching her voicemail and concluding she was still alive.

Sally and Bob Dowler, who were speaking publicly for the first time since the revelation in July that the News of the World had accessed the teenager's phone messages, told the Leveson Inquiry that the scale and gravity of the illegal eavesdropping on voicemails by journalists must be understood by the public.

Sitting beside her husband while a hushed courtroom at the Royal Courts of Justice listened, Ms Dowler gave a vivid account of how, after many days of calling her daughter's mobile phone and hearing an automated recording that indicated her voicemail inbox was full, she suddenly heard Milly's recorded voice and was able to leave a message. "I rang her phone," Ms Dowler said. "It clicked through on to her voicemail, so I heard her voice and it was just like: 'She's picked up her voicemails, Bob. She's alive!'" Ms Dowler added: "I told my friends, 'She's picked up her voicemail, She's picked up her voicemail'."

In an incendiary first day of evidence from victims of press intrusion, Lord Leveson also heard:

* A claim by actor Hugh Grant that a story published by the The Mail on Sunday in 2007 about him flirting with a "plummy-voiced" woman could only have come from hacked voicemails.

* Allegations from a solicitor for celebrities and public figures that newspapers routinely balanced the cost of any damages arising from a "kiss and tell" against the revenues the story would generate.

During what seemed at times to be consciously restrained testimony by the Dowlers, whose treatment by the NOTW rendered the brand so toxic that Rupert Murdoch's News International decided to close it, the couple revealed the effects of the hacking when it was finally disclosed to them.

Ms Dowler said: "I didn't sleep for about three nights because you replay everything in your mind and just think, 'Oh, that makes sense now, that makes sense'."

It was only on the eve of the trial of Levi Bellfield, the former bouncer who was convicted of Milly's murder this summer, that the family discovered they had been able to leave their voicemail because messages on her phone had been listened to by the NOTW and deleted – to enable others to be left by her family and friends. Bellfield probably murdered the Surrey schoolgirl within hours of abducting her close to her home in Walton-on-Thames.

Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator employed by the Sunday paper to obtain information and eavesdrop on voicemails, last night insisted he was not personally responsible for deleting messages and "had no reason to do so". In a statement from his solicitor, he said he believed documents set to be released by Surrey Police would "shed light on the actions he took then and the basis of them".

Ms Dowler said she could not remember how detectives reacted when she told them that her daughter seemed to have accessed her voicemails. An investigation by The Independent established last month that Surrey Police knew within the first weeks of the hunt for Milly that the NOTW had been accessing her voicemails but took no action against the paper.

The inquiry heard it was possible that the mobiles of the Dowlers themselves were also accessed after they were photographed on a private walk to retrace their daughter's final steps seven weeks after Milly disappeared in March 2002.

Three days after the couple had carried out the walk, checking "missing" posters pinned up by family and friends, a photograph was published of Ms Dowler reaching up to touch one. She said: "How on earth did they know we were doing that walk on that day? It felt like such an intrusion into a really private grief moment."

Mr Dowler, who along with his wife said there were no specific suggestions they wanted to make for improved press regulation, said there were wider lessons to be learned. "There is a much bigger picture, obviously," he said. "It was extremely important that... people understand exactly what went on."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine