A walk down a dangerous road: British press censorship and the spycatcher debacle

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Since assuming office in 1979, Margaret Thatcher's government has utilized three methodologies to control the publication of government information by the press: "Self-censorship," used most frequently against the BBC and other broadcasters; threat of the Official Secrets Act, used primarily against civil servants; and judicial action (civil breach of contract and criminal contempt) to punish the media for publishing government information. These three techniques have been used with varying degrees of success. Most recently, the Thatcher government has attempted to enjoin publication and distribution of Spycatcher, a book by former MI5 agent Peter Wright, in Australia. Several London newspapers were found in contempt for publishing summaries or extracts from the manuscript. Temporary injunctions, upheld by the Law Lords in July 1987, forbade the newspapers to publish details of the Wright trial as well as the contents of his book. Attempts by the government to obtain permanent injunctions have so far been unsuccessful, but await final disposition by the House of Lords in July 1988. In the face of virtually world-wide distribution of Spycatcher outside of Great Britain, the futility of government censorship is underscored, as is the need for a written bill of rights in the United Kingdom to guarantee freedom of the press.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)117-135
Number of pages19
JournalGovernment Information Quarterly
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1988
Externally publishedYes

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