The News of the World illegally targeted the missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler and her family in March 2002, interfering with police inquiries into her disappearance, an investigation by the Guardian has established.
Scotland Yard is investigating the episode, which is likely to put new pressure on the then-editor of the paper, Rebekah Brooks, now Rupert Murdoch's chief executive in the UK; and the then deputy editor, Andy Coulson, who resigned in January as the prime minister's media adviser.
The Dowlers' family lawyer this afternoon issued a statement in which he described the News of the World's activities as "heinous" and "despicable". He told the BBC this afternoon the Dowler family was now pursuing a damages claim against the News of the World.
And if that wasn't enough:
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...
The Dowler family then granted an exclusive interview to the News of the World in which they talked about their hope, quite unaware that it had been falsely kindled by the newspaper's own intervention.
The Dowler's lawyer, Mark Lewis, said:
"It is distress heaped upon tragedy to learn that the News of the World had no humanity at such a terrible time. The fact that they were prepared to act in such a heinous way that could have jeopardised the police investigation and give them false hope is despicable."
As Brian Cathcart notes:
If anyone still believed that the phone hacking scandal was “just” about celebrities, the allegation that the News of the World hacked Milly Dowler’s voicemails must lay the idea to rest.
No matter how ordinary and vulnerable you were, no matter how tragic your circumstances — in this case it was a missing, murdered Surrey schoolgirl — on this evidence you were a potential target for the Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday tabloid.
UPDATE: This development is the lead story on the front page of Tuesday's Guardian, Independent and Telegraph. It also makes the front page of the FT and the Times. The Express, Mail, Mirror, Sun and Star make no mention of it on their front pages and consider others stories - such as Cheryl Cole's love life and a scare story about ibuprofen - more important.
UPDATE 2: It appears that some later editions of the Daily Mail did include the story on the front page, but not as the lead. The article was on page 5.