Aitken and the ABC case

[L-R] Tony Bunyan, Duncan Campbell and Sarah Kavanagh speaking at the Arnolfini in Bristol, an event organised to mark the 40th anniversary of the ABC Campaign

The event in Bristol a couple of weeks ago to mark the 40th anniversary of the Aubrey-Berry-Campbell official secrets case was a good chance to catch up with many people I hadn’t seen for a good number of years. I was also quite surprised by the large number of bits of ephemera which I designed for the campaign. Stickers, posters, badges, the ‘souvenir programme’ which we produced for the 1978 Old Bailey trial and a few more I had totally forgotten about. The product of many nights Letrasetting headlines and pasting up artwork, and there they all were, projected onto the backdrop behind the speakers in a never-ending slideshow.

One was for this Conway Hall meeting, held in April 1977, an event I remember well.

Some people might be surprised to see Jonathan Aitken’s name as a speaker at this meeting, given that he is most famous now for being convicted of perjury following the collapse of the libel case he brought against the Guardian in 1995. However, he had himself been on trial in 1971 for breaching the Official Secrets Act, along with the editor of the Sunday Telegraph, the newspaper itself and a retired army colonel who had been an observer in the Nigerian civil war in the late 1960s. All the defendants were eventually acquitted on all charges. (The best summary of the case that I could find online is actually from the New York Times.) The judge told the court that the Telegraph’s report did not contain ‘a word affecting our national security.’ and that the result should make the Government consider whether the broad terms of the act had ‘reached retirement age and should be pensioned off.’ The case against Aitken was brought by a Labour government and Attorney-General, and it was the same combination who brought the 1977 prosecution against Aubrey, Berry and Campbell. That might have been the party political reason for Aitken speaking in support of a campaign which had previously only been backed by left-wing Labour MPs (such as Neil Kinnock, Jo Richardson and Robert Kilroy-Silk(!)).

After the case, Aitken wrote a book, Officially Secret, published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson in 1971. I have a copy of this, which I see from the stamps inside that I bought from a LB Hackney sale of withdrawn library stock in 1986 for 25p. The cover was designed by Craig Dodd, who also worked on covers for other publishers in this period. (See these posts on Existential Ennui: The Dame, The Right Stuff and The Shooting Party.)

There is another link between the Aitken and ABC cases. One of the defence counsel in both was Lord Hutchinson QC, who died yesterday at the grand age of 102. In his obituary in today’s Guardian, Geoffrey Robertson QC (who was a junior counsel in the ABC case) recalls how Hutchinson found out about the jury-vetting in the latter case, in a story which he also told at the Bristol event:

On the opening day of the ‘ABC’ trial in 1978, Jeremy discovered by chatting to an incautious Old Bailey clerk that the prosecution had made a clandestine application to a subservient judge to ‘vet’ the jury panel. This practice had been secretly used in ‘political’ cases and Jeremy’s advocacy blew it up into a national scandal. A pupil barrister (now Mr Justice Nicol) was dispatched post-haste to the LSE library to borrow a copy of Bentham’s Elements of the Art of Jury-Packing, which Jeremy used as the basis for a blistering attack on the weak Labour law officers who had approved this obnoxious form of secret policing.

By the time the ABC case came up for trial, I was working for the National Council for Civil Liberties as its publications officer. The very first item I produced in this new job was a pamphlet called Justice Deserted, written by one of NCCL’s legal officers, Harriet Harman, and LSE professor John Griffith. The foreword was by EP Thompson, no less, and I recall having to ring the great man himself to give him instructions as to where to post his text. Heady days indeed.

Advertisements

The ABC case: forty years on

L-R: Duncan Campbell, Crispin Aubrey and John Berry, pictured after their arrest in 1977. Pic: Crispin Aubrey Legacy Fund

It’s hard to believe that it’s more than 40 years since two journalists, Crispin Aubrey and Duncan Campbell, were arrested outside the North London flat of ex-soldier John Berry. All three were then charged with various offences under the Official Secrets Act.

I became a fairly active member of their defence committee, which was also supported by the National Union of Journalists and civil liberties groups. A first trial at the Old Bailey in September 1978 collapsed after one of the members of the jury was identified as a former officer in the Special Air Service. A second trial opened on 3 October 1978. The prosecution admitted that much of the information was in the public domain, and charges under section 1 of the Official Secrets Act were dropped on 24 October. All three were finally found guilty on 17 November 1978 of the Section 2 offences, but received non-custodial sentences.

Crispin Aubrey died suddenly of a heart attack in 2012. His family set up a fund in his memory to continue his work and carry on the campaigns with which he was involved. The fund is organising a public discussion in Bristol on Friday 3 November to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the case, and all are invited. Among the speakers will be John Berry and Duncan Campbell. The invitation explains:

Every post-war generation has had its own whistleblower who has tried to expose the extent to which governments monitor public communications. For the 1970s it was the ABC trial. This shone a light on the darker corners of state surveillance and sparked a ferocious attempt by the government to criminalise journalists. At this special event, hear from those involved and the contemporary relevance in our post-Snowden world. This unique panel discussion will look at the events from those involved and consider how much has really changed and the threats to journalists and whistleblowers today.

The event is free, but a £5 donation to the Fund is requested in order to continue its work. Get tickets in advance here.

Duncan Campbell’s own site has many items of interest to do with the case and trial.