By Michael Holden
LONDON (Reuters) - Journalists at Rupert Murdoch's News of the World told police hunting for a missing schoolgirl in 2002 they had accessed her phone's voicemail messages, a London court heard on Tuesday, as prosecutors focused in on the case at the heart of the trial.
Stuart Kuttner, then managing editor of the tabloid, contacted Surrey Police investigating the disappearance of Milly Dowler to say they had details of her voicemails, according to testimony the prosecution gave to show Kuttner was aware of the phone-hacking. Dowler was later found murdered.
The paper later ran a story quoting the messages, the court was told, and police took no action at the time.
Kuttner is on trial accused of conspiracy to illegally access voicemails on mobile phones alongside former editors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, who both have close links to Prime Minister David Cameron. They deny the charges.
Glenn Mulcaire, a private eye who worked for the now defunct paper, has admitted hacking Dowler's phone. Three journalists from the paper have also pleaded guilty to conspiracy to hack phones.
News of the Dowler hacking in the summer of 2011 caused a media firestorm which engulfed News International, the British newspaper arm of Murdoch's News Corp, and led to the closure of the 168-year-old paper.
On Tuesday, the prosecution gave a timeline of events surrounding the hacking of Dowler's phone after the 13-year-old went missing on her way back from school in March 2002.
The court heard that on April 13, Kuttner and other News of the World reporters contacted Surrey Police to say the paper had significant new information, and revealed they were in possession of recordings of her voicemail messages.
"Mr Kuttner when asked, supplied the mobile telephone (number) the calls were recorded on," Detective Sergeant Kevin McEntee said in a statement read to the court. "Mr Kuttner told me they had confirmed with schoolfriends this was the number."
A reporter also spoke to Sarah McGregor, who was head of communications at Surrey Police, and played a recording of one of the hacked messages. She said senior officers would have been aware of the hacked messages but she was unaware of any discussions of action against the News of the World.
Later that day, the paper, which was being edited by the then deputy editor Coulson while Brooks was on holiday in Dubai, ran an article which quoted from a message from a recruiting agency which later turned out to have been a wrong number.
The second edition featured a story without details of the message, however, which the prosecution suggested followed text message contact between Brooks and Coulson.
Jonathan Laidlaw, Brooks's lawyer, said that she had not made any direct telephone calls to the newspaper between the two editions.
MISSING SURREY SCHOOLGIRL
A holidaymaker in Dubai, who socialised with Brooks and her then husband, TV soap actor Ross Kemp, told the court he remembered Brooks being distracted on one occasion by work.
"She said it's something do with the missing Surrey schoolgirl and it's important," said William Hennessey, adding the "very nice, pleasant" Brooks had spent a lot of time on the phone when they were together.
During a tetchy cross-examination, Laidlaw said Brooks did not remember the conversation or even spending any time with Hennessey. "Why should she," Hennessey replied.
Prosecutors argue Brooks and Coulson must have known about phone-hacking because of the story's importance to the paper.
McGregor said Kuttner contacted detectives at the start of May to say the paper would offer a 50,000 pound ($79,800) reward and run a front page story to launch a campaign to find Dowler.
When he learned police decided to support a campaign organised by the tabloid's sister title the Sun, Kuttner said the News of the World had more resources, had demonstrated commitment to the case and that Brooks had said she was not keen on any joint approach with the Sun.
"This isn't the way to do it," Kuttner said, according to McGregor.
In addition to denying knowledge of the phone-hacking, Brooks and Coulson deny charges of authorising illegal payments to public officials, and Brooks and her husband Charlie are also accused of perverting the course of justice by hindering the police investigation.
Four other former News International figures also deny charges. The trial is expected to last six months.
($1 = 0.6269 British pounds)
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)