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 as 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newspapers and other media must deal with a 3-to-2 decision by the House of Lords that the Wright memoirs should not be published in any form and that even newspaper reports on developments in the Wright case in Sydney are banned.
Several newspapers, including the Daily Mirror, have published excerpts of the book as well as details of the Australian case and have been told they will not be prosecuted. Others have not been so fortunate. On Aug. 4, the newspaper The News on Sunday learned it is 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 House of 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.
Lord Scarman, arguably the most authoritative of British judges on matters of law, 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 Mrs. 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'' where possible.
It is at this point that contradictions in the government's approach become 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 attorney general appears to be inconsistent in his decision to prosecute only some British newspapers.
But Thatcher still has many supporters - and by no means are all of them Tory parliamentarians. One of them, Chapman Pincher, is the author of several books on espionage and 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.
Andrew Neil, the editor of The Sunday Times, which owns the British copyright of ``Spycatcher,'' remarked that the law was ``not only an ass, but a dangerous ass.''