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Exclusive: Government seeks to gag BBC over spy story

·4-min read
BBC Broadcasting House - Ian West/ PA
BBC Broadcasting House - Ian West/ PA

The Attorney General is seeking an injunction against the BBC to prevent the broadcaster allegedly identifying a spy working overseas, The Telegraph can disclose.

The BBC insists the news story is “overwhelmingly in the public interest”, in a case that echoes the Spycatcher affair during the Thatcher administration.

The Government will claim in court that the BBC report, should it be broadcast, presents “a risk to people’s lives”.

Suella Braverman, the Attorney General, will ask the High Court to grant an injunction at a hearing held in secret in the coming days.

The threat of the injunction comes at a time when relations between the Government and the BBC are severely strained.

Nadine Dorries, the Culture Secretary, has frozen the licence fee for the next two years and threatened in a social media post to scrap it altogether.

The BBC board has accused her of “profoundly damaging” the public service broadcaster.

The legal row revolves around a highly sensitive case, understood to concern British intelligence activities overseas.

A source said there would be huge disquiet should the BBC news broadcast go ahead. The source said: “It is really serious – there are serious risks. The programme would be a massive compromise for our security.”

Identifying the spy concerned would have “very serious consequences for the BBC” and would be “a risk to people’s lives”, the source said, adding: “These people are doing very, very difficult jobs in incredible circumstances. They are risking their lives. This is not James Bond – these are real people.”

The BBC declined to comment on the details of the story, but said on Friday night that its reporting was in the public interest.

A BBC spokesman said: “The Attorney General has issued proceedings against the BBC with a view to obtaining an injunction to prevent publication of a proposed BBC news story.

“We are unable to comment further at this stage, beyond confirming that we would not pursue any story unless it was felt it was overwhelmingly in the public interest to do so and fully in line with the BBC’s editorial standards and values.”

A spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office said: “The Attorney General has made an application against the BBC. It would be inappropriate to comment further while proceedings are ongoing.

The last high-profile attempt by an Attorney General to gag the BBC was in 2007, when Labour’s Lord Goldsmith was granted an injunction over cash-for-honours allegations amid claims that a broadcast of confidential information would have harmed a Met inquiry.

The Government almost never uses the court system to injunct media organisations on the grounds of national security.

In the infamous Spycatcher affair in the mid-1980s, the Thatcher administration had sought to prevent newspapers from reporting allegations made in the memoirs of Peter Wright, a former senior MI5 intelligence officer. The Government ultimately lost its case in 1988.

Book Spycatcher by Peter Wright - AP
Book Spycatcher by Peter Wright - AP

Legal experts warned on Friday that the Government would face accusations of abusing the courts if it failed to show that the story planned by the BBC was a credible threat to national security.

Geoffrey Robertson QC said: “The British judiciary remains fairly amenable to government claims of national security – which is the most frequent bogus claim that is brought. Because it is dealt with in secrecy, claims that would otherwise be laughable are taken seriously by a judiciary which is not disposed to challenge the Government on this issue.”

If Ms Braverman’s application succeeds, the Government could be granted either a full or a temporary injunction. The judge produces two judgments, one which will not disclose any sensitive details and one which gives all the details but can only be read by people with security clearance.

The BBC would be able to challenge the injunction at the Court of Appeal.

Thursday’s court action is believed to be an interim hearing called at short notice. The judge will weigh up the BBC’s right to freedom of expression against the national security concerns raised by the Government.

The Government also uses a system of so-called D-notices – short for Defence and Security Media Advisory Notice – to warn media organisations about stories that could harm national security. Compliance is voluntary, however.

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