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16 October 2000

Writers: guilty until found innocent

You think there is no pre-publication censorship in Britain? Tony Geraghty's experience suggests oth

By Tony Geraghty

A British civil servant in the Ministry of Defence writes a letter to the UK’s biggest publisher, “strongly urging” him not to release the paperback version of a book already on the shelves in hardback. The publisher complies, even though the request is just that: an invitation to change course, with no legal backing.

The MoD writes again two months later: “We do not feel we can condone paperback publication . . . Having made our concerns known . . . we do not intend to take any further action.” A grateful publisher then prepares to release the paperback, a year later than expected. It has just appeared. The British, with no written constitution or First Amendment (short of the European Human Rights Act) to safeguard freedom of expression, hardly noticed this extraordinary exercise of censorship.

The book in question is The Irish War, of which I am the author. My experience is a chilling lesson in the use – or, rather, misuse – of the judicial process to bully publishers, editors and authors in the UK. The trouble started two months before the hardback edition appeared in October 1998. The legal department of HarperCollins (my publishers) received a telephone call from a retired rear-admiral occupying room 2235 in the MoD’s main Whitehall building. He would later claim that, although on the ministry’s payroll, he was not an MoD official. He was acting, he said, as secretary of a committee known as the Defence Advisory Notice Committee (a unit answerable to no one in particular, created ostensibly to advise writers and publishers about security issues). The committee, an official study concedes, “is, in effect, one man – its secretary”.

The admiral did not reveal that he was also working on behalf of a shadowy MoD department known as the Secretariat, Home & Special Forces, run from rooms 5106 and 5107 in the same building. His concern was that my references to the work of the SAS and other special forces in Northern Ireland might jeopardise security. He requested sight of the unpublished manuscript.

I vetoed that suggestion, conscious that the D-Notice office has a disreputable history of betraying writers innocent enough to trust it. Its former secretaries include Colonel Sammy Lohan, paid £500 a year by MI5 for passing on “titbits” from the Fleet Street newspapers. I myself had received the uncensored, unpublished proof copy of Mark Urban’s book Big Boys’ Rules – another analysis of special forces’ operations in Northern Ireland – after he had entrusted it to the D-Notice team for vetting.

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My refusal did not go down well. The admiral wrote two letters in an effort to achieve a change of direction. The second said that he would look at the book when it appeared, and concluded: “Should I find anything to which I feel your attention should be drawn, I will be in touch.” It was open to the MoD at this stage to seek an injunction in order to seize the manuscript, but that would have been a very overt act of public censorship. It would have raised questions also about the “voluntary” nature of the D-Notice system of information control in Whitehall, as well as the D-Notice Committee’s claim to be independent of the ministry.

The book appeared. Lord Gowrie, Robert Kee and others welcomed it. So too, subsequently, did such varied sources as the Catholic Herald and the SAS regimental journal, Mars & Minerva. The ministry, meanwhile, analysed every line in search of something resembling a breach of security. On pages 158 to 162, the ministry thought it had found it: references to the names of computer software programmes (not codewords) employed by military intelligence in Northern Ireland to keep under surveillance most of a largely innocent population. This, as I warned, was an Orwellian development that would, in time, be turned upon British civilians. That is now happening, through the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.

The problem facing the control freaks in their pursuit of a wayward author was that their own damage-assessment team had rapidly concluded that the book did not endanger lives or imperil military operations. This did not inhibit the ministry, whose own police force – commonly known as “Modplod” – raided my home before dawn on 3 December 1998. What followed was a farce that could have been scripted by Kafka – and which my wife described in this paper (11 December 1998).

The search, by six MoD police detectives (including a woman to keep an eye on my wife) lasted almost eight hours. Everything, including the dirty washing, was examined. The computer, my diary, many of my files (some unrelated to defence) were removed. We then set off for the local police station, in rural Herefordshire. The arresting officers did not know where to find the station, so I found myself guiding them. The station officer did not know how to record my arrest on his computer. As he explained: “We don’t get many official secrets cases in Leominster.” “Try ‘Miscellaneous’,” I suggested. It worked. I could now be safely locked in a cell, between long periods of interrogation. I was released after five hours.

About 150 miles away, HarperCollins’s west London office was also being raided and searched, but no arrests were made. In Surrey, Nigel Wylde, a friend who had won the Queen’s Gallantry Medal for defusing IRA bombs in Northern Ireland, was also lifted and questioned, as my alleged source.

For the next 360 days or so, I was on police bail. In May 1999, I was charged with breaching Section 5 of the 1989 Official Secrets Act: the first time this law had been exercised. I made a single appearance at Bow Street and faced an Old Bailey trial, plus two years’ imprisonment and financial ruin.

By December 1999, a year after the raid, a new attorney-general had looked at the file, discovered new evidence and decided he was “not content” for the case against me to proceed. My friend Nigel Wylde still faces trial.

During this period, the ministry had been working on the publisher. First my editor, then HarperCollins’s senior legal adviser, were invited by Modplod to step down to Hammersmith police station to answer questions under caution. The legal adviser, an experienced barrister, did so on 1 July 1999. He was interviewed for four hours and emerged convinced of the MoD’s declared belief that The Irish War had indeed damaged national security. The paperback, due to appear two months later, was put on the back-burner. As my editor freely admitted: “I’m waiting for a green light from MoD.”

In the event, no action was taken against either editor or legal adviser, but the point had been made: they, too, could face prison and financial ruin. A prudent man would conclude that collaboration was a wiser course than resistance, however noble. Yet it is to the credit of the legal adviser that he tried again to induce the ministry to identify what, exactly, was the problem, since the hardback had remained on sale without challenge by Whitehall. As the lawyer put it: “If the damage has in fact already occurred and is incapable of remedy, then there would seem to be no harm to national security for the work to be published unaltered in paperback. However, if the damage is continuing, we would expect to be notified of such damage in order that we can take a respon- sible view as to whether the work should be published in any format at all.”

The answer came not from the Ministry of Defence police, or from the D-Notice Committee secretary (where another rear-admiral had been appointed secretary), but from an official in Secretariat, Home & Special Forces, for whom the D-Notice secretary had been covertly working at the start of the affair. On behalf of Sec (HSF), a Mr T E (Tim) Taylor wrote in reply: “MoD accepts that to a large extent the damage has already been done by the publication of the hardback edition of this book. However, whilst sensitive information has already been compromised, we cannot rule out the possibility that wider dissemination could exacerbate the damage, by bringing this information to the attention of individuals who otherwise would not have been aware of it. This being the case we did not feel that we could condone paperback publication . . . “

Could a trial proceed without anyone specifying the nature of the damage? Would the trial, to limit public knowledge further, take place in secret, behind closed doors? Since Modplod, while interrogating me, had identified the offending passages, marked on the relevant pages in various colours, did they expect me to forget or conceal the substance of their complaint? Or did the secretariat believe that the IRA could not fork out the £19.99 required for a single copy of the (unchallenged) hardback?

The ministry was in a fix. It still is. It must pretend that damage has been caused if it is to press its pursuit of Nigel Wylde. Yet this exercise was not – as British Tommies sometimes put it – an entire waste of rations. True, as the second anniversary of its police raids on civilians approaches, the ministry has still to prove its point. But the next time a publisher receives a letter from a rear-admiral in the MoD inviting him to collaborate with government vetting, he might reflect on my case and conclude that collaboration is wise.

Voltaire, during his three-year exile in England, wrote: “In this country it is thought well to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others.”

Times change. These days, admirals have a licence to kill free expression.

Tony Geraghty is a long-established military journalist and commentator. His book The Irish War, published in paperback by HarperCollins (£7.99), is on the bestseller lists in Ireland