Occasionally, the Israeli government closes an Arab newspaper or in some other way censors the news. Predictably the world press reacts in outrage. This happens, we are told, because Israel is a Western democracy and should be held to the highest standards. To its occasional chagrin, it usually is.
But what is true for Israel is not true for England. There, the government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has censored a book by Peter Wright, a retired intelligence agent now living in Australia. Wright had worked for MI5, the officially unacknowledged British counterpart of our FBI, where for many years he lived the life of an ascoted G. Gordon Liddy -- breaking and entering, bugging and breaking the law to uphold, of course, the rule of law.
Probably Wright's most explosive accusation is that more than 10 years ago, MI5 went to work against its own government -- a Labor one to be sure, but still the government. Some right-wing agents bugged and attempted to smear the prime minister, Harold Wilson, suspecting he was a communist sympathizer. Britain survived and so did Wilson, and the rest of the book is sort of a Popular Mechanics guide to spycraft. Technical devices apparently do for the real-life Wright what a stunning woman does for the fictional James Bond.
Wright's book has been published in the United States. In Australia, the British government lost an attempt to block publication but an appeal is pending. In England, Thatcher has been a veritable pit bull when it comes to Wright. No publisher will touch the book (although the bootlegged U.S. version is available on the street), and English papers are prohibited even from reporting arguments made in the Australian court. One former Cabinet member, Tony Benn, took to reading portions of "Spycatcher" in Hyde Park, but for the fiery Benn this was a small audience indeed -- and one that paid no royalties to Wright.
England, like most nations, has laws against the publication of official secrets. In this country former CIA agents must submit their books to agency censorship, and the courts have upheld the government's right to punish those who break the agreement. They can lose their royalties, for instance.
But England's secrecy laws are more embracing and more draconian than our own. The Thatcher government reached all the way to Hong Kong to stop the South China Sunday Morning Post from publishing excerpts of Wright's book. In England, reporting of the book's contents is strictly prohibited -- and even the BBC would not air Benn's Hyde Park reading. At least two newspapers, though, have published "Spycatcher" excerpts, risking punishment.
This is censorship, pure and simple. Yet in this country much of the reporting about the dispute reads like yet another article about the balmy Brits. For some reason, the imbroglio seems to be considered quaint, as if we were talking about cold toast, warm beer or the inexplicable inability of Englishmen to keep their socks up. The fact that England is one of the world's foremost, and oldest, democracies seems not to matter -- nor that it is our closest ally. Censorship is being played for laughs.
To Thatcher and some of the British political establishment, grave matters of principle are at stake here and, as usual, she is being credited for her tenacity. The so-called Iron Lady maintains that the government has a right to protect its secrets even though, in this case, its secrets are no longer secret. She is, in the words of a Maryland legislator I once heard, beating a dead horse to death -- zooming past redundancy straight to absurdity.
The principle of a free press seems hardly to concern Thatcher. In attempting to teach Wright (and the press) a lesson, she has extended the reach of laws that have already diverted the British press from momentous issues of government to the trivial shenanigans of the Royal Brat Pack. Wright may have a klutzy literary style, but some of his allegations are shocking. If MI5 attempted to discredit a prime minister, that's something the British people ought to know. Given the familial nature of the Anglo-American relationship, it concerns us too.
Democracies have a notoriously hard time keeping their secrets. But the dated revelations of an under-pensioned civil servant are no more compelling than the security concerns of other allies -- democracies like Israel or authoritarian regimes like Korea. When those countries censor the press, we react with outrage. England is our foremost ally, a timeless land of timeless virtues. Maybe it shouldn't be held to our standards. But at the very least, it ought to be held to its own.