Sarah Tisdall

From Wikispooks
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Person.png Sarah Tisdall  Rdf-entity.pngRdf-icon.png
Sarah Tisdall.jpg

Sarah Tisdall is a former UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office clerical officer who was jailed for leaking British government documents to The Guardian newspaper in 1983.[1] She anonymously sent The Guardian photocopied documents detailing when American cruise missile nuclear weapons would be arriving in the United Kingdom. The documents set out the political tactics Michael Heseltine, then defence minister, would use to present the matter in the House of Commons.

No 'threat to national security'

There was no threat to national security in the revelation but the Government nonetheless brought a legal action against The Guardian, seeking an order requiring the newspaper to reveal its source. Although The Guardian successfully argued that it was protected by section 10 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 from providing the information, the judgement by Justice Scott was quickly reversed on appeal.[2] The appeal by the Attorney General Sir Michael Havers was on the grounds that – although the documents themselves were harmless – a civil servant capable of leaking them, might leak other documents which could pose a threat to national security.

Tell-tale photo-copies

The Guardian complied with a court order to hand over the documents, which were identified as coming from an FCO photocopying machine. The machine led to Tisdall who, when confronted with the evidence, pleaded guilty to a charge under the UK Official Secrets Act 1911. She was sentenced to six months in jail but was released after four months.

House of Lords Decision

The legality of the Order (compelling the Guardian to surrender the documents, and thus reveal their source) was upheld in a decision of the House of Lords (Secretary of State for Defence v. Guardian Newspapers Ltd. [1985] AC 339) by a majority of three against two.

Warning from history

Following the arrest on 11 April 2019 of Julian Assange, The Guardian is understandably nervous. Secret policemen have already visited the newspaper and demanded and got the ritual destruction of a hard drive. On this, the paper has form. In 1983, a Foreign Office clerk, Sarah Tisdall, leaked British Government documents showing when American cruise nuclear weapons would arrive in Europe. The Guardian was showered with praise.

When a court order demanded to know the source, instead of the editor Peter Preston going to prison on a fundamental principle of protecting a source, Tisdall was betrayed, prosecuted and served six months.[3]


Related Document

TitleTypePublication dateAuthor(s)Description
Document:The Assange Arrest is a Warning From HistoryArticle12 April 2019John PilgerLeni Riefenstahl, close friend of Adolf Hitler, whose films helped cast the Nazi spell over Germany told me that the message in her films, the propaganda, was dependent not on “orders from above” but on what she called the “submissive void” of the public: "When people no longer ask serious questions, they are submissive and malleable. Anything can happen.”