BBC to be taken to court to stop it from reporting on spy story
Attorney general is seeking an injunction gagging broadcaster, with hearing set for March
The government will take the BBC to court in March in an attempt to prevent it from publishing or broadcasting a proposed news report.
Oliver Sanders QC, representing the attorney general, Suella Braverman, told the high court on Wednesday that the case involved matters of national security and breach of confidence.
The Telegraph reported on Friday that the BBC was planning to reveal the identity of a spy working overseas, prompting comparisons with the Spycatcher saga.
It is a rare example of breach of confidence claim being brought by the government against a media organisation. In 1987, the Thatcher government gagged newspapers in England from reporting on Peter Wright’s claims against MI5, contained in his autobiography, Spycatcher, which had been published in Australia.
Given the sensitivity of the current case, Sanders requested that Wednesday’s hearing be held in private, telling the court: “In our submissions, the difficulty of proceeding in open court … is it makes it almost impossible to discuss the issue, in terms of what the case is about.”
The BBC’s lawyer, Adam Wolanski, opposed the application for the hearing to be held in private, describing it as “a departure from the open justice principle”. Mr Justice Chamberlain ruled that it would be held partially in private but only for discussions surrounding the Telegraph story. As a result the press and public were excluded from the hearing for more than an hour.
However, Chamberlain said he was committed to the case being heard in public where possible, saying: “The principle is not to derogate from open justice unless it is strictly necessary and compellingly justified.
He added: “The interim relief hearing will take place on 1 and 2 March. It will take place in public until – and to the extent – there’s an order made that any part of the hearing should not be in public.”
The judge also directed that a redacted version of the injunction application and claim form, which were previously sealed, can be made public on Thursday.
Before the hearing, a spokesperson for the BBC 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 spokesperson 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.”