Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 492
In 1985 Peter Wright, a senior officer in Britain’s counterintelligence agency MI5, attempted to publish his memoirs. They detailed his work from 1955 to 1976 and advanced the largely discredited thesis that the former head of MI5, Sir Roger Hollis, was a Soviet spy. The British government denied Wright permission to publish on the grounds that he would be violating the Official Secrets Acts, which bound civil servants not to divulge without prior approval official information acquired in the course of duty. However, Wright was then a resident of Australia and intended to publish his book there.
The British government knew that it could not enforce the Official Secrets Act in another country, so it initiated a civil law suit in the Supreme Court of New South Wales, in Australia, to stop publication. Britain claimed that Wright was guilty of breach of contract, the contract being that he in effect had promised his superiors to maintain confidentiality of information acquired in the course of his work. Wright’s defense attempted to demonstrate that no confidentiality was being broken and that Britain was trying indirectly to enforce its Official Secrets Act in Australia. During the trial, it was revealed that in 1980 and 1981, Wright had secretly given his information to Chapman Pincher, a British journalist, who in turn had published Their Trade Is Treachery (1981). The government, however, had taken no action against Pincher, apparently because it believed that the book’s contents were not prejudicial to British interests.
On March 13, 1987, the Supreme Court of New South Wales ruled there was no breach of confidence in Wright’s case, mainly on three grounds: that information on events occurring decades earlier could cause no harm; that the information contained in the book was already in the public domain; and that the government had failed to stop publication of the same material in previous books. Through appeals, the case eventually reached the High Court of Australia, which also ruled in Wright’s favor on June 2, 1988, arguing that the British government was in effect trying to enforce its own penal laws in Australia.
Even before the Australian High Court’s decision, the publication ban had been lifted. Spycatcher had already been published in the United States the previous July, and the book was selling well in both Australia and Europe as well. At the same time, legal action was proceeding in Britain, where the book was still proscribed. In October, 1988, however, Britain’s House of Lords grudgingly allowed Wright’s book to be published and legally sold in Britain, where it became a best-seller. This affair was a public relations disaster for the British government, which appeared intolerant, secretive, and foolish in attempting to prohibit circulation of a book the entire world was discussing. The affair also painfully exposed the limitations of the Official Secrets Act. In a final irony, reviewers found that Wright’s book advanced a dubious hypothesis, and was generally dull, uninformative, and full of factual errors.
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