Source and activity 1

'Spycatcher: the candid autobiography of a senior intelligence officer', by Peter Wright

'Spycatcher' book cover
© Penguin Viking, 1987.
[NLS shelfmark: RB.m.310]

Peter Wright's memoir made several embarrassing allegations against the British Government and MI5.

The Government's attempts to ban the book through the English courts using the Official Secrets Act and impose a gagging order on newspapers failed to take into account that this would have no effect under Scottish law.

The book continued to be available in Scotland and the press was free to report on the furore in England.

Peter Wright (1916-1995)

In 1950, at the height of the cold war, Wright began working as an adviser for the Security Service (MI5) and joined it full-time in 1955.

At MI5 he became highly skilled in developing microphones and bugging devices. Many of his ideas were shared with the American CIA.

Wright eventually left MI5 under acrimonious circumstances, believing that he had been cheated out of his full pension entitlement.

He then emigrated to Tasmania but returned to Britain at the request of Victor Rothschild, another MI5 officer and member of the famous banking family.

Breaking the Official Secrets Act

Rothschild asked Wright for help in squashing rumours that he was a Soviet spy. Wright agreed, and the result was the book 'Their trade is treachery' by Chapman Pincher published in 1981.

When Wright's role in supplying information for the book became known, journalists besieged him. As a result he agreed to break the Official Secrets Act and write his own memoirs.

The ghost-written work was first published as 'Spycatcher' in Australia in 1987 and was an immediate bestseller. Its appeal was enhanced by the fact that it was banned in the United Kingdom under the Official Secrets Act.

The Official Secrets Act

This act prohibits the disclosure of confidential material from government sources by employees.

It remains an absolute offence for a member or former member of the security and intelligence services (or those working closely with them) to disclose information about their work.

Disclosure of information already in the public domain is still a crime and there is no public-interest defence. Journalists who repeat disclosures can also be prosecuted.

Part of the act was updated in 1989 from the original act originally passed in 1911 which had long been accused of being too wide-ranging.

Suggested discussion questions

The National Library of Scotland was sufficiently worried about the legal process in England that they consulted Scottish Office lawyers about making 'Spycatcher' available to its readers (despite the book being legally available in Scotland).

The book was subsequently restricted in the Library. Do you think was an over-reaction or a legitimate concern?

Source and activity 2



Themes in focus: Censorship



Censorship related material at NLS

Browse a selection of NLS material relating to all aspects of censorship by typing the term 'censorship' in the search box above.


Visit the 'Banned books' web pages that accompanied our blockbuster 2011 exhibition.

Censorship on the web

Index on Censorship is Britain's leading organisation promoting freedom of expression.


'The Guardian' website has a dedicated section on global press and media censorship.


Scottish PEN is part of a global organisation committed to campaigning for writers under threat.

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