Special Branch lose court battle on Shayler Newspapers win court battle over

Two National newspapers should not be forced to hand police documents from the former MI5 officer David Shayler, the High Court ruled yesterday.

Two National newspapers should not be forced to hand police documents from the former MI5 officer David Shayler, the High Court ruled yesterday.

In a decision regarded as a victory for press freedom the court warned against the making of disclosure orders against newspapers.

That might "stifle" investigative journalism unless there was "compelling evidence" the orders were in the public interest, said three judges.

The Guardian and Observer newspapers were challenging an order made at the Old Bailey in March to hand over the material. Officers from the Metropolitan Police Special Branch had requested the order under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act.

Lord Justice Judge, sitting with Mr Justice Maurice Kay and Mr Justice Gibbs, ruled that the wide terms of production orders made by an Old Bailey judge "would have a devastating and stifling effect on the proper investigation of the Shayler story".

Quashing the orders, Lord Justice Judge added: "Virtually any journalist who made contact with him, and any newspaper publishing an article based on discussions with Shayler, would have been at risk of a similar application to the present. "To my mind, that would be an unhealthy development, quite disproportionate to any practical advantages of the prosecution process."

Lord Justice Judge said: "Legal proceedings directed towards the seizure of working papers of an individual journalist, or the premises of the newspaper or television programme publishing his or her reports - or the threat of such proceedings - tends to inhibit discussion."

The Special Branch, who are investigating alleged breaches of the Official Secrets Act by David Shayler, wanted to seize documents used by the newspapers.

Mr Shayler has claimed that MI6 officers were involved in an attempted coup against Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi, in which several innocent bystanders were killed.

In The Observer case, the Special Branch were demanding notes and documents used in a front page article in February headlined "Two Spies Named in Libya Plot".

The officers also wanted a copy of an e-mail sent by Mr Shayler to The Guardian for publication. Both newspapers fought the orders, arguing they would "strike at the roots" of their independence in a way which was both unlawful and unfair.

They also accused the Government of attempting to "suppress or shoot the messenger".

Mr Shayler, now in exile in France, has said he intends to return to Britain at the end of August to face any charges that might be brought against him.

The Crown Prosecution Service is now deciding whether to appeal to the House of Lords against today's ruling, in view of its general importance.

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