Wright ban is wrong, court rules

THIS STORY APPEARED IN THE 12/28 WORLD EDITION (WEEKLY) A British High Court judge opened the way this past week for publication in Britain of allegations made in ``Spycatcher,'' the memoirs of former counterespionage agent Peter Wright.

In denying the government a permanent injunction against newspaper reports of the allegations contained in the book, the court upheld the duty of the press to expose wrongdoing, even in national security affairs.

The ruling was a rebuke to the government's claim of absolute protection for the security services and another defeat in its effort to prevent the worldwide dissemination of Mr. Wright's book, which recounts his 25 years in MI5, the security agency responsible for Britain's counterintelligence efforts. The book alleges to describe widespread treason and misconduct in Britain's intelligence services.

``The ability of the press to freely report allegations of scandals in governmnent is one of the bulwarks of our democractic society,'' said Justice Richard Scott in his 100-page decision.

Britain's press is still not free to serialize the book or cover the charges it makes, since the court agreed to continue a temporary ban on such actions until late January, when the court will hear the government's appeal.

British newspaper editors were nonetheless pleased with the ruling and commended the court for taking a sensible attitude toward what is already in the public domain outside of Britain. ``Spycatcher'' has sold some 1 million copies worldwide since its publication in the United States last summer.

The book is banned in Britain, though thousands of bootleg copies circulate in the country. Earlier this past week, a New Zealand court refused to grant a ban preventing a Wellington newspaper from publishing excerpts from the book.

Justice Scott said that the price to be paid for free speech and a free press is the loss of some degree of secrecy.

He argued that Wright ``was in clear and flagrant breach of the duty of confidence he owed to the Crown.'' But he ruled that this duty of confidentiality did not extend to the press if the public interest required disclosure. In this case, the consideration of freedom of the press had ``overwhelming weight.'' The judge commented that absolute protection of the security services, as argued by the government, ``could not be achieved this side of the Iron Curtain.''

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