On Sunday 20th February, 1977, three men were arrested, John Nicholas Crispin Aubrey, John Ashley Berry and Duncan Campbell. Berry was charged with communicating classiﬁed information to unauthorised persons and Campbell and Aubery with unauthorised receipt of classiﬁed information under the 1911 Official Secrets Act.
This became the start of what was known as the ABC Trial abc being a contraction of the surnames of the accused. It became a highly signiﬁcant trial, particularly in respect of how defence-related material could be reported in the uk.
The arrests of the abc group were related to the arrests of former cia agent Philip Agee and journalist Mark Hosenball. They were brought into custody and were intended to be deported in connection with Amercian magazine Counterspy which had made disclosures about the cia. The Home Office wanted to deport the pair because of what they cited as …obtaining information which could be harmful to the security of the United Kingdom. However, Agee said: I believe pressure has has been put on the United Kingdom from the highest level to order me out in an attempt to disrupt publication of my second book on cia activities.
The connection to the abc group came from an article called The Eavesdroppers, that had appeared in Time Out in May 1976 that Mark Hosenball had co-written with Duncan Campbell, before Hosenball joined the London Evening Standard in July 1976. Duncan Campbell also appeared before the Home Office advisory committee hearing representations from Agee and Hosenball and he said that he had written most of the article that had appeared in Time Out. The article had covered gchq in Cheltenham and Campbell stated there were no official secrets in the article that were not already available to the public.
During the time Hosenball and Agee were earmarked for deportation, Campbell and Aubrey became aware of John Berry, a former officer at gchq, who had written to the National Council for Civil Liberties, (which was under General Secretary Patricia Hewitt future Secretary of State for Health , who also campaigned for Hosenball and Agee to get a fair trial) saying that he shared Hosenball and Agees doubts about the legitimacy of gchq activities and that it was a smokescreen for anti-democratic activities.
As a result of this Campbell and Aubrey decided to interview him for Time Out.
The three were arrested at John Berrys ﬂat and were then held without bail for 7 days, Berry was accused of passing on information to Campbell and Aubrey who were then arrested for receiving highly classiﬁed information. On August 9th, Campbell was also charged with …for a purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the state, collecting information concerning defence communications that might, directly or indirectly, be useful to an enemy.. The case was the adjourned until November 7th for the hearing to begin.
The ﬁrst day of committal proceedings was at Tottenham Magistrates Court in London where a tape was played (the court was cleared the tape played in secret) in which the prosecution alleged that it was John Berry, former soldier, giving details of Britains monitoring telecommunications to Campbell and Aubrey. The recording lasted more than 3 hours after which police officers, who had been keeping watch, arrested the three men.
The defence for Berry, Mr. Michael Mansﬁeld, said there was nothing in the tape which was detrimental to national security and that playing the tape in secret amounted to prejudging the case. Campbells defence, Mr. Geoffrey Robertson said that his client would say the prosecution had mistook investigative journalism for subversion and the other side of the coin should be heard. He also pointed out the inconsistency in the application of secrecy in that Berry needed written permission to visit any country in the Soviet bloc for just two years after his Army discharge yet he could never go to Time Out.
The trial at the Old Bailey began on 5th September 1978. Before the trial had opened, the prosecution had gone to considerable lengths to keep secret the identity of Colonel B. His actual name, Colonel HA Johnstone was published in The Leveller magazine. This prompted Samuel Silkin qc, the Attorney General, to apply for jail orders for the magazines publishers under the grounds of Contempt of Court. Colonel B had already been named three times at a National Union of Journalists conference in April 1978 when Special Branch officers attempted to deliver contempt of court actions to the nujs General Secretary, Kenneth Ashton.
The attempts to protect the identity of Colonel B (which Crispin Aubrey described as …the security services tried to cloak their witnesses in anonymous letters and make the whole affair appear more sinister.) began to degenerate further into farce when the Speaker of the House of Commons had to rule whether the Director of Public Prosecutions was in contempt of Parliament over a memorandum to newspapers to protect the identity of Colonel B.
At the heart of the case during the ﬁrst trial was the accusation against Campbell that he had tried to discover the layout and function of the United Kingdoms defence communication system; Mr. John Leonard, qc, for the Crown, argued that Campbell had used his skill to ﬁt together pieces of a jigsaw to present a picture that might be valuable to a potential enemy.
At no time was Campbell accused of trespassing on Ministry of Defence property or of deliberate espionage. The Crowns case rested on the fact that Campbell had been clever enough to put together a picture of a communication infrastructure based on public records, photographs of public structures (such as radar antennas) and even from entries in the public telephone directory.
The trial itself was dramatically halted on 22nd September when two new conditions came to light:
On October 3rd 1978 the trial reopened at the Old Bailey and each juror now to declare any involvement with the armed services within the last 15 years leading to one juror being asked to stand down.
On 24th October the ﬁrst charge that Campbell was in breach of Section 1 of the Official Secrets Act 1911 that he [was] collecting sketches, notes, documents and information about defence communications for a purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the state; the judge formally entered a verdict of Not Guilty as Mr. John Leonard, qc for the Crown said no evidence would be offered on the charge.
Crucially the abandonment of the section 1 charges came about as the judge was unhappy about them being applied in this case as it speciﬁed:
a purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the state
The judge found the section 1 charges oppressive as the provisions of section 1 had been reserved for spying and sabotage cases and the Crown had made clear there were no accusations of spying involved in the alleged offences against the abc defendants. Without any evidence of spying taking place or an intention to spy or to assist a possible enemy, the section 1 charges were wholly without substance.
Also, the judge noted that in 1964 the House of Lords made an authoritative decision that section 1 on the application of the charge to sabotage and that no one seemed to consider that section 1 was appropriated to cover anything other than spying or sabotage.
On 1st November 1978, Duncan Campbell in his defence made the following statement in relation to receiving information and its context within the Official Secrets Act:
The second…is a common sense interpretation which you have to make, because if the Act was interpreted literally every newspaper published would be in contravention of it.
Campbell went on to say that his Not Guilty plea rested on the statement of the then Home Secretary, Merlyn Rees who said in the Governments view the mere receipt of information should no longer be an offence. Campbell also said that although he was charged with the receipt of information from Berry, he commented that it was dross rather than gold and that he gained a few minor details he could have picked up elsewhere. He said that he had actually gone to Berry as me may have been able to cast some light on the deportations of American journalists Philip Agee and Mark Hosenball but it sooner became clear Berry knew very little about them.
The receipt of information became central to the allegations against Campbell; on the 4th November Campbell said that the aerial photographs of army signals intelligence units had been obtained from a United States agency which sold satellite surveillance photographs which were available for $60. He had also gained deatils of the signals intelligence units (Sigint) from a published volume known as the International Frequency List.
On Thursday, November 16th 1978 Duncan Campbell was found guilty at the Central Criminal Court of receiving information about British signals intelligence from a former soldier. On the previous Tuesday Aubrey had been found guilty of abetting Campbell and Brrry guilty of communicating information to Campbell. They were sentenced by Mr. Justice Mars-Jones as follows:
The abc trial failed for several basic reasons; the ﬁrst was it demonstrated in court how oppressive and unenforceable official obsession with security had become, especially where the military was concerned. The judge had described the section 1 charges as oppressive and in the opinion of Campbell, Sigint [Signals Intelligence] is illegal. It is contrary to a number of international conventions and people doing Sigint are left in no doubt about it they are engaged in illegal activity.
The Law Society went on to say that the decision of Attorney General Samuel Silkin, qc, to continue to prosecute the two journalists even after the section 1 charges had been dropped struck at the very foundations of journalism according to a leading article in the Law Society Gazette.
The critical part of the case splits in to two parts; ﬁrst Campbell and Aubrey were prosecuted for the mere receipt of information which was all the prosecution had ever alleged and secondly as Campbell et al made clear at various points during the trial nearly all of it was public knowledge, including the information which would have made identifying Colonel B easy. In the press conference after the trial Campbell reiterated the point that the state had cast an enormous net to catch a tiny tiddler and that none of the information they had received from Berry was a secret nor, in his opinion, was it damaging. The Crown had been forced to drop the section 1 charges of Campbell collecting information which included such names as the Post Office towers in London and and Birmingham and which could not be mentioned because it would be damaging to the interests of the State. At this point the trial had started to become farcical.
The National Union of Journalists said the verdict could only give heart to those who wished to create a more closed society in which journalists were unwilling or unable to expose improper activities by government…All journalists are now placed at risk whenever they interview unofficial sources about government activities.
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This document is Copyright © Kevin Hall 2006
1It had been revealed by New Statesman journalist Christopher Hitchens http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/politicallycharged/pip/y2xcm/
Last Updated: Tuesday, 22-Aug-2006 12:41:27 PDT