Shayler tells Lords that secrets act breaches freedom of expression

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The Independent Online

The renegade MI5 agent David Shayler told the House of Lords yesterday that the official secrets legislation under which he is facing criminal charges was a breach of the right to freedom of expression.

Lawyers for Mr Shayler argued the Official Secrets Act had now been superseded by the human rights laws which were introduced in October 2000. They asked the law lords to rule that the two laws were incompatible with each other.

Mr Shayler is accused of disclosing state secrets in 1997 in a series of newspaper articles about alleged illegal activities and incompetence in the security services.

Yesterday he brought his appeal to the House of Lords after the Old Bailey judge trying his case ruled he could not rely on the Human Rights Act in his defence of acting in the public interest.

Geoffrey Robertson QC, appearing for Mr Shayler, told the court the agent's disclosures were clearly in the public interest or "excused by the principle of necessity". Some of the disclosures "touched a deep nerve in the British culture of liberty". To deny him the right to express these opinions was a breach of his human rights and against the public interest.

Mr Shayler, 35, revealed in The Mail on Sunday that in the Seventies agents tapped the telephone of Peter Mandelson, and kept a file onJack Straw.

Yesterday Mr Robertson told Lord Bingham and four other law lords that the case also raised issues, "of importance for press freedom and a democratic society".

The Independent and several other newspapers and television companies, as well as the Newspaper Society, have all been given permission to make representations in the three-day hearing. Their lawyers are expected to submit that, given previous House of Lords' decisions, the Official Secrets Act should be interpreted to guarantee freedom of expression.

In September at the Court of Appeal, Lord Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice, ruled that although the "defence of necessity" could in principle be used in official secrets cases, it did not apply to Mr Shayler. The court ruled Mr Shayler's case did not involve, "imminent threats to the life and limb of members of the general public". But they agreed the case raised points of law of public importance and gave permission for Mr Shayler to make his case in the House of Lords.

The Old Bailey trial will start after the House of Lords has ruled on Mr Shayler's appeal.