Government’s legal bid to gag BBC over spy story will be heard in public, judge rules

Government’s legal bid to gag BBC over spy story will be heard in public, judge rules

  • Attorney General Suella Braverman to ask High Court to block BBC news piece
  • It is said to concern a spy working overseas and Govt claims story will ‘risk lives’ 
  • BBC insists story is ‘in public interest’ and ‘fully in line’ with editorial standards


The Government’s legal bid to gag the BBC over a story about a spy working overseas will be heard in public – a judge ruled today.

Exceptions will be made under the Justice and Security Act which may see the hearing that goes into detail about the particular aspects of espionage and identifying details will go into private.

Attorney General Suella Braverman has argued the High Court must stop the upcoming news broadcast, claiming it presents a ‘risk to people’s lives’.

The BBC say the segment is ‘overwhelmingly in the public interest’ and ‘fully in line with its editorial standards’.

Attorney General Suella Braverman (pictured) is set to ask the High Court to gag the story

The BBC wants to go ahead with the segment, claiming the story is 'overwhelmingly in the public interest' and 'fully in line' with its editorial standards (file photo)

The BBC wants to go ahead with the segment, claiming the story is ‘overwhelmingly in the public interest’ and ‘fully in line’ with its editorial standards (file photo)

The battle calls back to the Spycatcher book affair during the Margaret Thatcher years – which saw the Government attempt to prevent newspapers from publishing allegations made in a tell-all novel by former MI5 agent Peter Wright.

They eventually lost their bid for an injunction in 1988.

But today’s decision was made under a mostly-private directions hearing in the Royal Courts of Justice for fear of ‘risking national security’.

The saga is reminiscent of the Spycatcher book affair from the Margaret Thatcher years - which saw the Government attempt to prevent newspapers from publishing allegations made in a tell-all novel by former MI5 agent Peter Wright (pictured). They eventually lost their bid for an injunction in 1988.

The saga is reminiscent of the Spycatcher book affair from the Margaret Thatcher years – which saw the Government attempt to prevent newspapers from publishing allegations made in a tell-all novel by former MI5 agent Peter Wright (pictured). They eventually lost their bid for an injunction in 1988.

How the British Government failed to gag Spycatcher, the explosive memoirs of a MI5 agent which claimed a former boss of the secret service was actually a Soviet mole  

The Conservative Government under Margaret Thatcher attempted to stop newspapers from publishing allegations from a tell-all novel by former MI5 agent Peter Wright. 

They first launched a legal battle in 1985, when they attempted to stop the book – entitled Spycatcher – from being published in Australia. 

But it lost the action and by late 1987 the book had gone global and was the number one bestseller in the US after 400,000 copies flew off the shelves.   

And while the Government had succeeded in placing a temporary injunction on the book’s details being published in Britain, its publication around the world made the gagging order in the UK practically worthless.    

It was therefore ruled that the media could publish extracts from the memoirs, given that any damage to national security had already been done by its publication abroad. 

Mr Wright was branded a ‘traitor’ by some for disclosing secrets about how MI5 operated. 

The controversial book accused the secret service of operating beyond the law – while intelligence bosses accused the former agent of making up stories. 

The MI5 website still reads today: ‘An internal MI5 assessment found convincing evidence of ‘dishonesty on the part of Wright, who did not scruple to invent evidence where none existed’ to support the conspiracy theories in his memoirs.’

The book sensationally claimed Prime Minister Harold Wilson was the target of an MI5 conspiracy and that the former boss of MI5, Roger Hollis, was a mole for Soviet Russia in the 1960s. 

Mr Wright died a millionaire, aged 78, in April 1995.

Oliver Sanders QC, for the Attorney General, said: ‘I argue that an injunction is necessary based on three points, that publicity would defeat the object of the hearing, it relates to national security, and it is about confidential information and publicity would damage that confidentiality.

‘More generally in our submission is the difficulty of proceeding in open court is that it makes it almost impossible to discuss the case.

‘There is a risk given the national security of a slip up with all the media present and so the matter should be dealt with in private.’

He added: ‘The BBC say the public interest justifies its broadcast.’

Adam Wolanski QC, for the BBC, said: ‘What the BBC is arguing is a serious departure from the open justice principle.

‘The court can only depart from that principle if strict necessity is shown..’

Before the court closed, Mr Justice Chamberlain said: ‘I am satisfied that I should direct that the hearing proceed in private..at this stage.

‘In light of Mr Sanders and his inability to answer questions in advance of this hearing, I could not reach a decision without reaching an understanding of submissions that he says would damage national security.

‘This directions hearing will proceed in private for the time being.’

Opening the court again, Mr Justice Chamberlain, he said: ‘The trial will take place in public unless there is a very real reason why not.

‘Some exceptions may be made under the Security and Justice Act.’

The trial date will take place over two days, starting on March 1.

It has been 15 years since the Government attempted to gag the BBC, after Labour’s Lord Goldsmith was granted an injunction over cash-for-honours allegations back in 2007.  

That particular claim was successful because it proved that a broadcast of confidential information would have harmed a Metropolitan Police inquiry.  

The latest injunction bid comes just days after Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries announced she was was freezing the licence fee for the next two years in the latest souring of relations between the Government and the BBC.

The Liverpudlian MP also threatened to stop the vital fee altogether in a social media post – leaving the broadcaster with a potential funding black hole running into the billions. 

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