A sweeping judgment by the House of Lords has made it illegal for any British newspaper to print details from the memoirs of former agent Peter Wright, even though copies of his book ``Spycatcher'' are flooding into the country. By a margin of 3 to 2, the Lords, who are the final court of appeal under British law, refused to lift a year-old injunction preventing publication of Mr. Wright's allegations of misconduct by the espionage organization MI-5. They also banned the printing of news reports about a separate court case in Australia, where, against British government opposition, ``Spycatcher's'' publishers are trying to gain the right to print the book.
The legal injunction the Lords upheld restrains three newspapers - the Sunday Times, the Observer, and the Guardian - from referring to ``Spycatcher'' in any detail. Andrew Neil, the editor of the Sunday Times, which holds serialization rights to the book and began printing long extracts from the book three weeks ago, compared the situation to the conditions applied to the mass media in the Soviet Union.
The only recourse the newspapers now have is to go to the European Court of Justice in Strasbourg and appeal the decision.
That could take up to 18 months.
The House of Lords decision has been condemned by British opposition politicians and Fleet Street newspaper editors. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, however, has stuck to her view that at all costs Wright, who lives in Australia, must be made an example of. Otherwise, the government argues, all other espionage agents who have signed the Official Secrets Act might feel free to divulge vital secrets.
The ban on reports of the Australian court case is believed to be a unique extension of press curbs. The Australian judgment, which is expected in a few days, is thought likely to go in favor of the publishers (Heinemann) and against the Thatcher government. If this happens, the British media may be able to report the outcome but not the evidence.