The British Government has lost its long-running battle to stop the publication of the controversial book Spycatcher, written by a former secret service agent.
Law Lords ruled the media can publish extracts from former MI5 officer Peter Wright’s memoirs, because any damage to national security has already been done by its publication abroad.
But they agreed Mr Wright’s book had indeed constituted a serious breach of confidentiality, the principle at the heart of the government’s case against him for the last three years.
Despite the defeat Home Secretary Douglas Hurd claimed the ruling “vindicated” the government’s attempts to preserve the life-long “duty of confidentiality”.
However, Shadow Home Secretary Roy Hattersley, said the ruling now made the Government’s position “demonstrably absurd.”
He said in using the legal system the government had behaved in a “scandalous way when it must have known it would lose in the end”.
Mr Wright was condemned by the Law Lords as a traitor for disclosing security service secrets, but his lawyer, Malcolm Turnball, said their criticism of his client was unjudicial and “reeked of bad losing”.
He argued allegations about confidentiality had already failed to convince an Australian court in an earlier attempt by the British government to prevent publication of his client’s book.
Mr Wright was apparently ill, and unable to comment on today’s verdict.
With the ruling, injunctions imposed against The Observer, The Guardian and The Sunday Times have been lifted. Outside the court Donald Trelford, editor of The Observer celebrated:
“At long last our democratic system has reached the obvious conclusion that these were genuine matters of public importance that the public should be allowed to know about.”
Spycatcher is already an international bestseller with nearly two million copies sold.
In his memoirs as an MI5 officer Mr Wright alleges the security service operated beyond the law.
Some of his more controversial revelations include the claim that Prime Minister Harold Wilson was the target of an MI5 conspiracy and that ex-chief of MI5, Roger Hollis, was a Soviet mole in the 1960s.
Courtesy BBC News
The Spycatcher affair began in 1985, when the British Government started proceedings against the book being published in Australia. It lost the action in 1987.
By late 1987 Spycatcher was the number one hardback bestseller in the US, selling 400,000 copies.
Although the government had succeeded in gagging the British media for a time it failed to prevent the book’s disclosure anywhere abroad.
In November 1991 the European Court of Human Rights found the government’s actions had violated the right to freedom of speech.
Peter Wright died a millionaire in April 1995 aged 78.