Förderverein Informationstechnik und Gesellschaft

ECHELON: UK Official Secrets Act: 1977 Stories and beyond

16 February 1999. Thanks to Geoffrey Robertson and Duncan Campbell. Source: Hardcopy of The Justice Game, Geoffrey Robertson, Vintage, London, 1999, ISBN 0-09-958191-4, pp. 104-134.

Chapter 5

Ferrets or Skunks? The ABC Trial

The trial which in the seventies had the most impact on law and on politics - certainly on lawyer-politicians, and on that amorphous construct, the State - is recalled through its acronym, 'the ABC case'. This stands for the surnames of three defendants, Crispin Aubrey (a Time Out reporter), John Berry (an ex-soldier) and Duncan Campbell, a 24-year-old scientific prodigy who had chosen to make headlines as a freelance journalist rather than money as a telecommunications whizz-kid. They were arrested for talking to each other over a bottle of chianti in a London flat on a wet evening in February 1977, and prosecuted on charges laid under the Official Secrets Act which carried (in Campbell's case) a maximum of thirty years' imprisonment. By the time the proceedings ended, with a champagne celebration outside the Old Bailey eighteen months later, Britain was a less secret country. In 1977, the Attorney General's response to Duncan Campbell's ability to uncover State secrets was to try to lock him away. In 1987, when Campbell was about to broadcast details of the Zircon spy satellite, the Attorney General took him to lunch at the Garrick Club instead. This progress, from the stick of prison to the boiled carrots of the Gentleman's Club, showed that a lesson had been learned: in a democracy, the criminal law cannot be deployed as a tool for disposing of those who use their right of free speech to embarrass or inconvenience the authorities.