When The Guardian dropped its Milly Dowler bombshell back in July, I called the News Corporation hacking it reported “abhorrent and illegal.” But I reserved the harshest words (“downright evil”) for the News of the World’s alleged deletion of Dowler’s voicemails.

That Guardian report unleashed the whirlwind. Since then, the News Corp. hacking scandal has exploded, taking down the 168-year-old News of the World, crippling Rupert Murdoch in the United Kingdom, and, presumably, at some date in the near future, forcing his son James out of the company.

Now a major element of the story— the deletions—has had to be corrected, and, not for the first time in its years-long, heroic coverage of the hacking scandal, The Guardian is on the offensive. Murdoch’s people are on the attack.

Murdoch’s Australian reprinted a story from his “serious” UK paper,
The Times of London, and blasted this headline:

Error led to News of the World’s closure

Murdoch’s Sun managing editor, Richard Caseby, pushed the same company line and said that The Guardian was guilt of “sexing up” its story, which coming from a tabloid editor is really something. A former Sun editor asked, shamelessly: “Who will say sorry to Rupert?”

What happened here, and how does it affect the narrative of the hacking scandal?

There was indeed a major problem in The Guardian’s story: Its assertion that NotW journalists deleted Dowler’s voicemails in the days after her disappearance may not be true. In the original July 4 story, Nick Davies and Amelia Hill reported on concerns by Surrey police about the deletions, reporting as fact that “The messages were deleted by journalists in the first few days after Milly’s disappearance in order to free up space for more messages.”

Last week, Davies and The Guardian broke the news that new evidence showed that part of its story was probably wrong.

in a correction appended to the story, The Guardian wrote this:

An article about the investigation into the abduction and death of Milly Dowler (News of the World hacked Milly Dowler’s phone during police hunt, 5 July, page 1) stated that voicemail “messages were deleted by [NoW] journalists in the first few days after Milly’s disappearance in order to free up space for more messages. As a result friends and relatives of Milly concluded wrongly that she might still be alive.” Since this story was published new evidence - as reported in the Guardian of 10 December - has led the Metropolitan police to believe that this was unlikely to have been correct and that while the News of the World hacked Milly Dowler’s phone the newspaper is unlikely to have been responsible for the deletion of a set of voicemails from the phone that caused her parents to have false hopes that she was alive, according to a Metropolitan police statement made to the Leveson inquiry on 12 December.

The Guardian would be much better off here if it had only followed a basic rule of journalism and attributed information to sources. Investigations are inherently fluid. What police believe one day may turn out to be wrong or at least less likely as new evidence turns up. That’s what appears to have happened here, as The Guardian reports Surrey detectives believed back in 2002 that NotW journalists had been responsible for the deleted messages and told Dowler’s parents that at the time.

Instead, The Guardian asserted it without attribution or hedging that “messages were deleted by journalists in the first few days after Milly’s disappearance in order to free up space.” This is an awfully dumb mistake to make. Had the paper simply followed that sentence with a comma and a “police believe,” it would not have even needed to correct its original story.

In fact, the paper wasn’t too far from doing that. Here’s how it introduces the deleted-messages assertion in the July 4 story (emphasis mine):

In the last four weeks the Met officers have approached Surrey police and taken formal statements from some of those involved in the original inquiry, who were concerned about how News of the World journalists intercepted - and deleted - the voicemail messages of Milly Dowler.

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 friends and relatives of Milly concluded wrongly that she might still be alive. Police feared evidence may have been destroyed.

Even today, it’s unclear whether what The Guardian reported is actually wrong that NotW caused the deletion that gave false hope to Dowler’s family. Davies reports this:

It is understood that while News of the World reporters probably were responsible for deleting some of the missing girl’s messages, police have concluded that they were not responsible for the particular deletion which caused her family to have false hope that she was alive.

What we do know is that police can’t prove who deleted that message but think it’s unlikely that NotW did it, since Glenn Mulcaire hadn’t been hired on the story yet (although Davies reports another NotW journalist may have already had Dowler’s cell number and PIN).

Even The Guardian can’t get this aspect nailed down, writing that NotW responsibility is now believed “unlikely” in the same sentence that it writes that “this was not the case”:

In July the Guardian reported that the deletions were caused by the News of the World. But, as it emerged that this was not the case, the newspaper printed a clarification in mid-December saying that was “unlikely to have been correct” in the light of further investigation made by the Metropolitan police.

British reporting and writing is a little loosey-goosey for our tastes. That goes for language and attribution. Both are critical. In this case, we see how sloppily excluding a few words can damage a reporter’s and paper’s credibility. When you’re dealing with ultra-sensitive investigations of highly powerful people, you have to be that much more careful. Davies and The Guardian, who are still real heroes, despite the error, have opened themselves up to attack from someone like Rupert Murdoch and his minions. That’s dangerous, even if it’s too late for Murdoch to regain his former prominence in the UK.

Fortunately, almost all of Davies’ other reporting has held up to scrutiny—no small feat in one of the biggest—perhaps the biggest—media stories of all time, on which he has written more than a hundred pieces. But the fundamentals of journalism—attribution and accuracy—apply even to the best journalists and their biggest scoops.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.