Wright ruling wrong-foots secrecy act

By , staff writer

THIS APPEARED IN THE 2/22/88 WORLD EDITION THE government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is under great pressure to reform Britain's Official Secrets Act following the defeat of its request for a permanent ban on the publication of ``Spycatcher.''

The decision by the Court of Appeal on Feb. 10 rejected the government's attempt to prevent newspapers from reporting or commenting on the memoirs of Peter Wright, a retired British intelligence officer. It also rejected a ban that prevented the Sunday Times from serializing the book, which has sold some 1 million copies worldwide.

The government is appealing the court's decision to the House of Lords, but its case appears to have been lost, both politically and legally. The verdict followed a bruising parliamentary debate last month, in which the government opposed a reform bill by a member of its own party. The government won the vote, but by a very slim majority.

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Richard Shepherd, who proposed the bill, said the vote showed there was bipartisan support for reform of the act, which has been unaltered since its creation in 1911. Mr. Shepherd said his bill forced Home Secretary Douglas Hurd to speed up work on the government's own reform measure, which has been promised in the form of a White Paper by this summer.

In what some observers called Parliament's best debate in years, MPs last month mock-ingly observed that the act's ``catch-all'' provisions, make it an offense to reveal the kind of tea served at 10 Downing Street.

``It's become an extraordinary device for bureaucratic bungling and protecting people's backs,'' said Shepherd.

In the decision by the Court of Appeal, Sir John Donaldson said the government was entitled to impose a duty of confidentiality in the interest of national security and he made a plea to intelligence officers to uphold their pledges to the government. But he added that the global distribution of ``Spycatcher'' had transformed the situation.

The court also ruled that the government was not entitled to a catch-all ban, preventing publication of any material from members of the security services, past or present. This was a direct challenge to Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act, which technically protects all government information without reference to national interest.

The press and bookstores remain under a temporary ban until the government's appeal runs out.

Failure has met all previous attempts at reform, including a government proposal after Mrs. Thatcher first came to office in 1979. That proposal was withdrawn following opposition from Parliament and the press.

The press remains skeptical of government reform proposals. ``There is fear that anything they put in its place will be even more constraining,'' said a senior editor at the Sunday Times.

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