My day in the dock: scary, costly and unnecessary

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Before I went to court last week I was told to bring a toothbrush. I had to prepare myself for prison. Colleagues laughed about the terrors of going inside, my children told friends their daddy was on his way to jail, my wife put on her brave face but I could tell she was worried.

And all because of a couple of newspaper articles published in November 1995. I was Westminster correspondent of the Independent, our sister paper, and Ian Hargreaves, now of the New Statesman, was editor.

Four men had their appeals against conviction for supplying arms to Iraq upheld. Like much of the arms-to-Iraq saga, the details were complex but the bare bones were simple and shocking. The four, all of whom had been connected with a company called Ordtech, were charged with conspiracy to export weapons to Saddam Hussein.

They wanted to plead not guilty. Their defence was straightforward: the British Government knew all along what they were doing but had been content to turn a blind eye. In effect, the men - in particular, Paul Grecian, their leader - had been spying for Britain against Iraq. The security services wanted them to trade with Baghdad and keep them informed about what Saddam was up to.

The Crown argued that no such documentary evidence of their contacts with the security services existed and if there had been, no prosecution would have been brought. Faced with that setback and a signal from the trial judge that any prison sentence would be suspended, the defendants pleaded guilty.

In 1995, three years on, spurredby the collapse of the Matrix Churchill case, the Ordtech defendants appealled. In July that year, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor, ordered that documents the Government said had never existed be disclosed to Mr Grecian and his colleagues. He also ordered they be used only for the purposes of the appeal - once used they were to be returned.

In November 1995, the Ordtech defendants won their appeal. The court said they had not been granted a fair trial: "documents which are now before the Court ought to have been made available for the trial."

As soon as he had finished delivering his verdict, Lord Taylor was reminded by the prosecution counsel of his order back in July that the papers be returned. Taylor agreed, saying he hoped he did not see them in the newspapers or on television. The day before the appeal court judgement was handed down, I came into possession of a large pile of documents, some of which were copies of the papers the Government was so keen to suppress.

After the decision was announced, the Independent decided it was important its readers saw what it was the Government had been so keen to hide. It was all very well reporting the words of judges and lawyers, we felt, but these papers showed in black and white the extent of the authorities' knowledge about Mr Grecian's activities on behalf of the nation.

Here was a man who traded with Iraq, that was admitted, but who was prepared, at enormous risk to himself and his colleagues, to keep the Government abreast of what he was doing. What thanks did he get? None. Instead, Customs and Excise decided he should be charged for dealing with the enemy.

When he protested his innocence, claiming his activities were well known to the authorities and, indeed, had been encouraged, down came a Westminster and Whitehall portcullis of silence. It was shabby and shameful, and in the context of arms to Iraq, the same as what happened in Matrix Churchill.

In Ordtech, as in Matrix Churchill, the "gagging orders" or Public Interest Immunity Certificates, were signed by senior government ministers - in this case, Kenneth Baker, Peter Lilley, Michael Howard and Douglas Hurd.

None of the ministers and civil servants involved in Ordtech, Matrix Churchill and the other arms-to-Iraq prosecutions has ever been reprimanded, as far as I am aware, let alone prosecuted.

The Scott Inquiry report into the Government's behaviour took years to produce and cost millions of pounds of taxpayers' money. Some civil servants were singled out for savage criticism by Sir Richard Scott. Yet they still keep their jobs and have not had to explain themselves in a court of law.

Only two people have been prosecuted over arms to Iraq since publication of the Scott report: myself and Ian Hargreaves.

In my home town of Barrow-in-Furness, when the Attorney-General announced he was bringing contempt proceedings against us, the local newspaper trumpeted on billboards: "Barrow journalist faces jail over arms scandal".

My mother rang me in a flap - people had been stopping her in Marks & Spencer to express their concern. I said that I had used some documents highlighting the way the Government was content to let innocent men be convicted. That was all. I had not stolen anything or assaulted anyone and I was not an arms dealer. She was unimpressed: "They only understand about right and wrong up here," she said.

Last Monday morning, Ian Hargreaves and I stood trial for contempt of court, for defying the order of the then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor, that these documents were to be used only for the Ordtech appeal.

In Court 4 at the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand in central London, there was an atmosphere of unreality. Outside, justice campaigners and film crews were awaiting the arrival of the Bridgewater Three, due in another court that day.

Inside, there was respectful silence. The setting was overpowering, Victorian, lots of dark wood. For us was Charles Gray QC, against us was Philip Havers QC. In trooped three judges, led by the present Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham, and the contest began. As courtroom dramas go, it was a lacklustre affair.

It soon became apparent that what was being complained of was our use of the documents in "rag-outs". In our anxiety to give our readers a graphic flavour of the sort of evidence denied to the Ordtech defendants we had reproduced slightly more than the words used by the former Lord Chief Justice in his judgment. He had referred to the documents and had read from them, but we had reproduced extra lines.

Mr Havers for the Attorney-General accepted that the order made in July 1995 restricting the documents' use was not made against the press. I had not obtained the papers from a defendant so there was no question of us having aided and abetted a breach of the order.

Instead, he argued that any conduct by a third party inconsistent with a court order is enough to constitute contempt. If accepted, this would have been a radical and ferocious extension of the law on press freedom. As our man argued: "The logical conclusion of this was to put the press in no better a position than a defendant against whom an order has been made."

Effectively, this would have meant strict liability for journalists, that they could not use evidence referred to in any legal case unless they went to enormous lengths to satisfy themselves that it was permissible to do so. Even if they had not been in court themselves, they would be treated the same as defendants who had been present all the time.

To satisfy the bounds of the crime of contempt, Mr Havers needed to prove beyond reasonable doubt our intent. His cross-examination was terrifying - "close but fair" was how the judges later put it. He concentrated on whether we knew of the July 1995 order on the defendants when weproduced the Independent in November 1995. We said consistently and repeatedly that we did not - indeed, so concerned was I to satisfy myself we could reproduce the documents, I had phoned the Lord Chief Justice's office for guidance and nobody had mentioned the July order. The judges reserved their decision. That was it: we were temporarily free to go home and reflect on the following:

why the Attorney-General, Sir Nicholas Lyell, QC MP had waited 10 months to institute proceedings against us;

we could not argue we were acting in the public interest - there is no such defence to contempt of court;

the lawyers present, especially Mr Havers, appeared to have no understanding of how newspapers are put together;

nobody mentioned that the Attorney-General who was prosecuting us was the same Attorney-General who advised ministers and civil servants on arms-to-Iraq cases.

On Thursday, after two days waiting and worrying, we were told to be in court the following day for the verdict. At 10am, the Lord Chief Justice said simply the application was dismissed. We were in the clear, and we had managed to safeguard an important freedom for the press.

Costs were awarded out of central funds. In other words, the taxpayer foots the bill, reckoned by one of the lawyers to be about pounds 200,000. The voters of Bedfordshire North East, where Sir Nicholas Lyell is defending a 20,000 Conservative majority might care to ask him for an explanation.

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