James Cusick: They were under pressure – but the police could still have been open about this

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The Independent Online

At the beginning of April 2002 there was media speculation that the missing schoolgirl Amanda Dowler may have met a mystery boyfriend on an internet chatroom. She had left a message and the police, it was understood, were investigating.

As prayers were said for her at an Easter Sunday church service in Walton, the police were promising to review any new material – anything that came their way – including clues that may have been left in a chatroom.

Nothing in The Independent's investigation today criticises the efforts Surrey Police made in first trying to find Milly and then investigate who murdered her. Yet something that passed through their inquiries which they have been reluctant to speak about since 2002 is their early contact with the News of the World.

It was not until July this year that it emerged that Milly Dowler's mobile phone had been hacked by the NOTW shortly after she went missing.

None of these recent events will have been much of a surprise for some officers in Surrey. But had they been open and transparent about the meetings The Independent reveals today, the extent and impact of the use of illegal phone intercepts inside the NOTW's newsroom would, in all probability, have been dramatically lessened.

Phone hacking had its first arrests in 2006; its first convictions in 2007; and the Metropolitan Police's Operation Weeting and other police inquiries into the use of illegal intercepts may yet reveal an extended timeline. This puts into perspective the importance of the events in April 2002 that were being dealt with by the officers leading the investigation.

As they have stated, there was a "huge amount of professional interaction between Surrey Police and the media throughout that time". Given the pressures on the tabloid media discussed in the initial seminars of the Leveson Inquiry, it is understandable for the police at the centre of a high-profile case to have felt a parallel pressure in doing their job.

But "interaction" does not explain, nor excuse, senior officers meeting with the News of the World and discussing evidence gained from the illegal practice of phone hacking. This evidence was never followed up – and after nine years is finally emerging.

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