Milly Dowler’s voicemails may have been "automatically removed", the Metropolitan Police said.
A lawyer representing Scotland Yard told the Leveson Inquiry that there is no evidence that journalists deleted the murdered schoolgirl’s phone messages.
Lord Justice Leveson, chairing the inquiry into press standards, asked the police to clarify exactly what happened to the messages, which gave the Dowler family false hope following Milly's disappearance.
The allegation that journalists from the News of the World deleted Dowler’s voice messages sparked a public outcry, leading to the closure of the newspaper in June.
Dowler was 13-years-old when she was abducted on her way home from school in Walton-on-Thames in Surrey in 2002. Her body was discovered in September that year. Levi Bellfield was found guilty of her murder in June this year and was sentenced to life in prison.
During the inquiry, Leveson heard that while News of the World journalists did hack the missing teenager’s voicemails, they did not delete the messages.
Private investigator Glenn Mulcaire as always denied he deleted messages from Dowler’s voicemails, a position he reaffirmed three weeks ago after Milly’s parents, Sally and Bob Dowler, gave evidence before the Inquiry.
Speaking at the inquiry, Neil Garnham QC said: "It is conceivable that other News International journalists deleted the voicemail but the Metropolitan Police have no evidence to support that proposition and current inquiries suggest that it is unlikely."
"The most likely explanation is that existing messages automatically dropped off from the mailbox after 72 hours. The relevant phone network provider has confirmed that this was a standard automatic function of that voicemail box system at the time."
The revelation has reportedly caused outrage among some former News of the World journalists, who lost their jobs after the newspaper closed following publications by The Guardian that News International employees had deleted Dowler’s messages.
On Monday, one former News of the World employee tweeted:
However, speaking to Sky News, the Guardian’s Nick Davies launched a staunch defence of his paper’s reporting.
“They had hacked into this little girl’s voicemail, he said. “I agree that the deleting was an important element. It did have an emotional impact. But it wasn’t the whole story.
He said by the time the revelations came to light, the police had already been investigating the News of the World for six months.
“It is delusional to pretend the new evidence of one element of one story would have changed the outcome,” said Davies.
Speaking to The Huffington Post UK, a former senior staff member at the News of the World (speaking on condition of anonymity), said: "The new revelation that the News of the World did not delete Milly Dowler's voicemails makes no real difference to the substantial accusations that the paper was responsible for her phone being hacked, which disgusted me at the time and still does.
"People are saying that the News of the World might still be open if the accusation about deleting voicemails had not been made. They would still have been left with the accusation that they hacked into a dead girl's voicemail. If News International had stood by the paper in the face of that, and made an effort to establish the truth, then the paper might still be running. But there clearly was no will from the management to stand by the paper and even close it temporarily pending an investigation."
"The fact that they didn't even bother to challenge an accusation that has been proved to be partly false proves that NI chose to sacrifice the News of the World in attempt to protect the lion's share of its business in the United States."