In 1977, journalists Duncan Campbell and Crispin Aubrey and former soldier John Berry found themselves at the centre of a huge news story. In a serious attack on media freedom, the government arrested them and charged them with breaking the Official Secrets Act. We find out more about what was dubbed the ABC Case below.
“ABC are innocent” – what’s that about?
ABC refers to the surnames of the three men in the picture. Left to right are journalists Duncan Campbell and Crispin Aubrey and social worker John Berry. They were the defendants in the high-profile ‘ABC case’ – an extraordinary and sinister attempt to criminalise journalism.
Sounds serious. What had they done?
In February 1977, Duncan and Crispin met with former British Army soldier John at Crispin’s home in North London to discuss the UK’s surveillance activities. As the trio left the house, they were arrested by Special Branch. They were held in a high-security prison wing for two days while police stripped Duncan’s home of every file, every piece of paper and every book they could lay their hands on.
What happened next?
All three men were charged with breaking the Official Secrets Act, plus espionage. Duncan faced up to 30 years in prison. “At that point it got a bit scary,” he says. “But at no stage did they suggest I was a spy. My espionage was for the people, so journalism was suddenly being equated with espionage for foreign powers.”
But hang on – what about freedom of the press?
Exactly. Duncan and Crispin were members of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ). The NUJ’s Code of Conduct states: “A journalist at all times upholds and defends the principle of media freedom, the right of freedom of expression and the right of the public to be informed.” So Duncan and Crispin were being persecuted for supporting their union’s code of conduct.
How did the NUJ respond?
The NUJ backed the ABC defence campaign. They kept the case in the spotlight and NUJ members and banners supported many pickets. Despite the gravity of the charges, Duncan remembers a party-like atmosphere at the protests: “At one demonstration, Crispin’s young children were holding balloons that said, ‘I am MI5½’ and ‘I am MI8’.”
And didn’t an intriguing story come out of the 1978 NUJ conference at Whitley Bay?
One of the many controversies surrounding the ABC case was around the use of an anonymous prosecution witness, referred to as Colonel B. At the Whitley Bay conference, delegates apparently went on to the beach and wrote the witness’s real name into the sand. Duncan takes up the story: “Word went around that the government planned to pursue everyone who’d written in the sand with contempt charges or worse. But while Special Branch was en route to make arrests, the evidence was destroyed by the tide.”
Did anyone end up in prison?
No. The espionage charges were dropped. Duncan, Crispin and John were convicted of breaking the Official Secrets Act but the judge didn’t impose a penalty. “The actions against us were intended to be the firm crack of the whip that brought back discipline to unruly journalists,” says Duncan. “But they failed spectacularly.”
So the government didn’t manage to scare Duncan and Crispin away from journalism?
Absolutely not. Duncan continues to break important stories on security and intelligence matters – he’s currently investigating Donald Trump. Crispin kept writing and campaigning until his sudden death in 2012. His family have set up a fund in his memory to support the next generation of journalists.