A DETECTIVE at the centre of the Milly Dowler phone hacking row has admitted his role in the scandal.

Private investigator Steve Whittamore confirmed to the Daily Echo that he was hired by the News of the World to obtain confidential information, including the home telephone number of teenager Milly after she was reported missing in March 2002.

However, he said that any illegal activity was conducted by third parties and insisted: “I was just the middle man.”

Mr Whittamore, 62, spoke to the Echo at his New Milton home after it was revealed that he was paid to discover the ex-directory telephone numbers of any families called Dowler in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, where Milly lived.

Her body was found in woods near Yateley, north Hampshire, six months later. Last month, Levi Bellfield was convicted of her murder and jailed for life.

Two telephone numbers are reported to have been obtained illegally by one of Mr Whittamore’s associates.

Scotland Yard is investigating evidence that the News of the World subsequently hacked into Milly’s voicemail with the help of its own private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire.

Journalists are said to have deleted some of Milly’s messages, raising false hopes that the missing 13- year-old was still alive.

Yesterday Prime Minister David Cameron condemned the alleged hacking as a “truly dreadful act”.

Mr Whittamore, who traded as J J Information Ltd with his wife Georgina, is reported to have had a network of sources who could penetrate the security of confidential databases.

But he denied hacking into Milly’s phone himself.

He told the Daily Echo: “The News of the World asked me to obtain certain items of information and I endeavoured to do so but got other people to carry out the task. I was just the middle man.

“I didn’t ask them how they did it, which was probably a bit naïve on my part.

“I never spoke to any of the editors at the paper and never actually met anyone.

It was all done by phone.”

Mr Whittamore claimed that he could not remember the exact details but added: “They probably said something along the lines of ‘get details of all the families called Dowler in area X’.”

In 2005 he was one of four men given a two-year conditional discharge at Blackfriars Crown Court in London after being convicted of breaching the Data Protection Act by selling confidential information.

Their victims were said to have been Royle Family actor Ricky Tomlinson, former London mayor Ken Livingstone and EastEnders actress Jessie Wallace.

Last night Mr Whittamore said that he now regrets his involvement with the News of the World and other national newspapers.

“It ruined my business and ruined my marriage – of course I regret it,” he said.

Car maker Ford, which has a van plant in Swaythling, Southampton, has pulled its advertising from the News of the World in response to the case.