A piece of illiberal silliness

19 September 2011

Memories are short in journalism, but reading about the attempts by the Met to force the
Guardian to hand over source material in the Hackgate case, reminded me of a case the same newspaper group fought over a decade ago.

Bizarrely, the story isn’t in the Guardian’s online archive, which doesn’t go back far enough. But here’s the report of the original hearing in The Independent.

Libya, spooks and a renegade MI5 officer: the story had it all.

“In a further crackdown on leaks from the renegade MI5 officer David Shayler, the Government launched a court action yesterday against two newspapers. It is part of the most aggressive legal
campaign by a government to stop an intelligence leak since Margaret Thatcher won the Spycatcher injunctions in the 1980s.

The Observer and The Guardian were required to appear at the Old Bailey as the Special Branch demanded that journalists’ notes, documents and e-mails be handed over. Ian Leist, for the Metropolitan
Police, said: "This application … arises in the continuing inquiry into breaches of the Official Secrets Act by David Shayler … who is presently believed to be residing in

Government is trying to stop Mr Shayler, 33, leaking more top-secret information. There have been a number of government-inspired actions against papers that have printed Mr Shayler’s allegations.
Last week Julie Ann Davies, a Kingston University student and supporter of Mr Shayler, was arrested under the Official Secrets Act. The Special Branch is seeking the person who posted a secret MI6
document on an internet site.

Yesterday’s action was triggered by a recent Observer report saying it had the names of the two MI6 officers Mr Shayler said had been involved in an assassination attempt against Colonel Muammar
Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, in 1996. After publication, police contacted the paper, asking the reporter, Martin Bright, to hand over notes of the conversation with Mr Shayler.

The police said Mr Bright was being investigated under Section 5 of the Official Secrets Act, which is used when damage to national security by a journalist is alleged. The police also asked for a
letter from Mr Shayler published by The Guardian on 17 February.

The newspapers, in line with the journalists’ code of ethics, refused to hand over the material. The police went to the Old Bailey under terms of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act to request a
production order. Michael Tugendhat QC, for the papers, told Judge Martin Stephens that the police had failed to make a case in court.”

We lost at the Old Bailey, but three months later were victorious at judicial review, when a certain judge spoke up  for the freedom of the press citing Voltaire and Pitt the Younger. That man
was a certain Igor Judge, who now sits as Lord Chief Justice. Perhaps he could have a quiet word with the new head of the Met and tell him not to be so silly.

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Show comments
  • rndtechnologies786

    Nice blog.

  • Andrew SW18

    Corrupting a sworn officer for political gain is about as low as The Guardian could stoop, and the corporation tax-evading Rusbridger has not disappointed.

    That the LCJ is a signed-up reader doesn’t make it right, just odious – and resorting to Voltaire is surely the second-last resort of the intellectually idle scoundrel.

  • Kingstonian

    I’m not sure what point Martin Bright is making. In the 1996 case, surely Special Branch were correct to invoke the Official Secrets Act when they were dealing with the leaking of official MI6 documents? Whether a judge eventually agreed or disagreed with them is immaterial as the Act was clearly relevant to the case.

    In the present case, it is plainly absurd and an abuse of power for the Met to try to use the Official Secrets Act in the investigation of a perceived leak from within its own ranks. That this attempt will also (hopefully) fail is the only obvious linkage between the two cases.

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