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Messages deleted by tabloid journalists? Not so fast...

LONDON – The scandal that has shaken Rupert Murdoch's media empire in Britain has taken a new twist, with police saying that messages missing from a murdered girl’s cell phone could have been deleted automatically rather than being erased by journalists trying to create more space for new calls.

Outrage over allegations that News of the World staffers had deleted the messages while police were searching for 13-year-old Milly Dowler – revealed earlier this year in an article in The Guardian newspaper – contributed to the closure of the tabloid, Murdoch's largest-circulation publication, in July 2011. Apart from the demise of the paper, the public outcry caused by the revelations resulted in the setting up of a public inquiry looking into the behavior of the press.

Dowler had been missing for a few days when activity on the phone’s message system gave her family false hope that the girl was alive and checking her voicemail. Her body was found about six months after she went missing, in March 2002.

However, Glenn Mulcaire, the private detective at the center of the scandal who was employed by the News of the World to help journalists hack phones, has always denied he was responsible for deleting the messages, which was alleged to have been done in order to free up space in Dowler’s mailbox.

And on Monday police backed his statement. Police officers told the Levenson Inquiry into media ethics and standards that they do not have evidence that Mulcaire or the paper’s journalists did the deleting.

One explanation is that the voicemail messages were deleted by the mobile phone provider as their time expired. 

"It is conceivable that News International journalists deleted the voicemails, but the Metropolitan Police Service have no evidence to support that,” Neil Garnham of the Metropolitan Police testified in a statement to the inquiry Monday. He added that the “most likely explanation” was that the messages were automatically removed after 72 hours since that was "a standard automatic function of that voicemail box system at the time.”   

‘The Fake Sheikh’
Also featured at the inquiry Monday was testimony by two of the News of the World's most well-known former reporters. (Previous witnesses include actor Hugh Grant, “Harry Potter” author JK Rowling and the actress Sienna Miller).

The first, Mazher Mahmood, known as the “the Fake Sheikh” for famously disguising himself as a Middle-Eastern businessman and recording conversations with corrupt individuals, claimed his investigations had led to the imprisonment of more than 260 criminals. But his success, he said, had also resulted in multiple death-threats. For this reason his identity was protected at the hearing: journalists were not allowed to attend and the usual video feed from the hearing was shut down (only his voice could be heard).

Mahmood defended practices at the newspaper, saying that the “ends justified the means” when a criminal was arrested as result of their reporting. But he admitted processes to ensure a story was both in the public interest and the source was credible were not as developed at the News of the World as they are at the newspaper where he now works, The Sunday Times (also part of the Murdoch empire). And, though he acknowledged using several covert practices, he denied any knowledge of phone hacking at his former paper.

The second ex-News of the World journalist to appear, Neville Thurlbeck, did not face any questions on phone hacking because he had been arrested in connection with the case and could have been in danger of self-incrimination.

Like Mahmood, he defended practices at the paper, including the kiss-and-tell reports of an affair involving soccer star David Beckham. He said the methods involved in getting the story were justified since the soccer player was trading on his image as a devoted family man to cash-in on huge sponsorships and advertising deals. He confirmed that the woman involved had received a six-figure sum for her story.