The British government's battle to suppress ``Spycatcher,'' the memoirs of the former British counterespionage agent, Peter Wright, is producing a classic collision between two imperatives: the need in a parliamentary democracy to maintain a free press, and the need of a democratic state to protect itself against subversion. The battle has acquired global dimensions. The law authorities in London are trying to prevent Mr. Wright's book, and excerpts from it, from being published in places as far apart as Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Hong Kong. In the United States, ``Spycatcher'' has been on sale for nearly a month, and the attempt to prevent publication there has been abandoned.
But in Britain itself the struggle is far from resolved, and it is producing fierce claims and counterclaims about the correctness of actions taken by the government of Margaret Thatcher.
The country's newspapers and other media face a 3-2 decision by the House of Lords that the Wright memoirs should not be published in any form and that even newspaper reports on developments in the Wright case in Sydney, Australia, are banned. The decision was handed down by Britain's nine Law Lords, who represent the country's supreme judiciary.
Several newspapers, including the mass circulation Daily Mirror, have published excerpts of the book as well as details of the Australian case and have been told that they will not be prosecuted for contempt. Others have not been so lucky. On Aug. 4, the radical News on Sunday learned that it is in line to be prosecuted.
Earlier, three newspapers - the Observer, the Sunday Times, and the Guardian - which had been restrained by a lower court from printing details of the Wright book, asked the Law Lords to lift the ban. Now that the request has been refused, the three papers intend to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, which has the power to decide that the Lords' judgment is wrong.
The Times (London) called on Britain's Attorney General, Sir Patrick Mayhew, to ask the Law Lords to reverse their decision, made two days earlier, to extend the ban on the Wright book to the court proceedings in Australia. By doing so, Sir Patrick would be acting in Britain's best interests, The Times said.
The Daily Mirror, owned by the powerful newspaper magnate Robert Maxwell, printed upside-down photographs of the three Law Lords who supported the line the government is taking. But more damaging to Mrs. Thatcher's cause was a contribution by Lord Scarman, arguably the British judge with the greatest authority on matters of law.
Scarman said: ``The majority of their lordships have overlooked the fundamental law providing the right of the public to access to information already in the public domain, and the public right of free speech, of which freedom of the press is an important constituent.''
At the root of the controversy is the fact that Peter Wright is a former secret agent who has, the government says, broken his oath of secrecy and given a large amount of detail about how Britain's security services have operated since the World War II. (Publication in Britain of the details given by Wright would infringe on the Law Lords' curb.)
But what worries Thatcher and her ministers even more than the abundance of detail is this: They feel that if they let Wright get away with what he has done, other agents may be tempted to print their memoirs too. Thus the government has ordered a relentless effort to suppress ``Spycatcher'' wherever possible.
But it is at this point that contradictions in the government's approach are obvious. First, thousands of copies of the US edition of ``Spycatcher'' have been reaching Britain in the possession of transatlantic travelers; so Wright's controversial cat is already out of the bag. Second, the Attoney General appears to be inconsistent in his decision to prosecute some British newspapers and to avert his gaze from the actions of others. This makes it difficult to see what the policy is.
This aspect of the case was highlighted in Scotland, which has its own legal system based on Roman law. Newspapers there, including the Scotsman and the Glasgow Herald, reported details of the Wright case in Australia, arguing that the Lords' ban did not apply to them. The Scotsman also published a long book review of ``Spycatcher.''
``The ruling would have to come through the Scottish courts to have an effect here,'' said John Hepburn, the Scotsman's managing editor.
Andrew Neil, the editor of The Sunday Times, which owns the British copyright of ``Spycatcher'' and published a long extract last month but is now restrained, remarked that the law was ``not only an ass, but a dangerous ass.'' Neil went on, ``We are having to get used to conditions similar to those in the Soviet Union where samizdat publications are handed around clandestinely.''
But Thatcher still has many supporters - and by no means are all of them Tory parliamentarians. Chapman Pincher is the author of several books on espionage and in the past has had close contacts with many British agents, including Wright. He says Wright is behaving unacceptably by breaking his secrecy oath and publishing memoirs in which he names other agents and talks in detail about electronic surveillance techniques and secret codes.