The Zircon affair was an incident in 1986 and 1987 caused by the planned broadcast of a television programme about the ultimately cancelled Zircon signals intelligence satellite. It raised many important issues in the British constitution particularly around parliamentary privilege and "gagging orders".
The Zircon affair
In November 1985 the Scottish investigative journalist Duncan Campbell was commissioned by BBC Scotland to present and research a six part half hour documentary series called Secret Society, produced by Brian Barr. Campbell had planned to use an episode of Secret Society to reveal the existence of Zircon, but found while researching the programme in the summer of 1986 that the head of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), Robert Sheldon, knew nothing of the project.
The Public Accounts Committee is a select committee of the House of Commons, responsible for overseeing government expenditures. It had been agreed between Parliament and the British government that expensive military projects should be subject to scrutiny by the committee, and Campbell felt that Sheldon's ignorance of the Zircon project was evidence of the violation of this agreement. The concealment of Zircon from the committee mirrored the parliamentary secrecy over a previous defence project, the Chevaline programme to enhance the Polaris nuclear missile. The previous head of the PAC, Lord Barnett, had been recently appointed the BBC Vice-Chairman. Barnett had withdrawn from a planned interview with Campbell for the programme after his BBC appointment, upset at the nature of the questioning that Sheldon had faced, who had accused Campbell of setting him up.
The Director-General of the BBC, Alasdair Milne, later wrote that the Secretary of the D-Notice Committee made "remonstration noises" after the Secret Society series was announced at the launch of BBC 2's autumn schedule.
A meeting of the BBC governors was held on 13 November 1986, chaired by Marmaduke Hussey. Hussey had been recommended as chairman of the BBC Board of Governors by Conservative government ministers. Opposition to Campbell from governors at the meeting came from Daphne Park, the former MI6 operative, who said that Campbell was a "destroyer" who the BBC should never have employed, and the former diplomat Curtis Keeble. Hussey subsequently expressed the negative views of the governors to Milne after the meeting.
Milne met the Director of the Government Communications Headquarters, Peter Marychurch, on 5 December 1986, on the same day that Alan Protheroe, the Assistant Director-General of the BBC, had written to Milne at his home, saying that the Zircon episode should not be transmitted. Protheroe was responsible for supervising journalism at the BBC, and had links to the intelligence services and the military. Protheroe believed that the Zircon episode would damage national security after speaking to the Ministry of Defence. Initial cuts of all six programmes in the series were then viewed by Milne, who later showed the series to the governors. The governors subsequently felt that baring a few changes, the series would be suitable for broadcast, barring the Zircon episode. However not all governors were as opposed to the episode as Protheroe was. The governors held two further meeting before Christmas 1986, at which Milne was "hounded unpleasantly over Secret Society". Milne finally made a decision not to broadcast the Zircon episode during the Christmas holiday.
The Zircon affair was publicly revealed by The Observer on 18 January 1987, with the headline "BBC Gag on £500m Defence secret". An injunction was obtained by the Attorney General on January 21 restraining Campbell from talking or writing about the contents of the episode.
On 22 January Campbell published an article in the New Statesman against which the government issued an injunction. Campbell's article was sourced to a former employee of GCHQ and four unnamed defence officials, and the Attorney General instructed police from Special Branch to find their identities to establish whether the Official Secrets Act had been breached. Special Branch raided Campbell's London home and the New Statesman's offices, and in early February Strathclyde Police raided the offices of BBC Scotland in Glasgow. The Controller of BBC Scotland, Pat Chalmers was questioned by Special Branch police, and Protheroe was arrested and questioned by the Strathclyde police.
Campbell could not be found to be served with the injunction, whereupon the magazine published details of the contents of the film. The Special Branch then raided the offices of the magazine. Then, under the authority of a warrant under section 9 of the Official Secrets Act 1911, they conducted a raid of the BBC's premises in Glasgow which lasted for 28 hours on 24 January 1987.
The matter now becoming public knowledge, opposition MP Robin Cook managed to obtain a video of the Zircon documentary and arranged a showing of it to MPs in the House of Commons. The Attorney General, Sir Michael Havers, sought an injunction in the High Court to prevent the video's showing, but the application was dismissed on the basis of parliamentary privilege.
Frustrated, the Attorney General organised a briefing on the matter for the Speaker of the House of Commons, based on confidentiality stemming from their common membership of the Privy Council. That day, the Speaker ruled that no part of the Palace of Westminster was to be used for the showing of the video, pending a report by the Committee of Privileges. There was much political consternation at the ruling.
With the help of sympathetic MPs Campbell tried to privately screen the programme in the House of Commons, though all BBC staff had been ordered to return copies of the programme. The Zircon project fell under the remit of the Defence Select Committee, who wished to see the episode, but were opposed by a civil servant from the Ministry of Defence. The dispute was ruled upon by the Speaker of the House of Commons, Bernard Weatherill, who ruled that the episode could not be shown on the parliamentary site, it was instead screened nearby.
The governors remained in a state of disquiet, with Hussey complaining to Milne that the episode should never have been made. Hussey and the Board of Governors demanded Milne's resignation on 29 January.
However, by this time, copies of the video had been obtained by various civil liberties organisations, which arranged public showings around the UK. The government was now placed in a difficult situation. The showings would be in clear violation of the Official Secrets Act[vague] but prosecution under the acts is possible only with the permission of the Attorney General and there was a danger of an escalating political crisis. The Attorney General stayed his hand and the matter soon faded in the public interest.
The Committee of Privileges subsequently recommended that showing the video would fall outside proceedings in parliament and was, therefore, not protected by privilege. They further recommended that the Speaker's actions had been wholly proper.
The Cabinet episode
The sixth episode of the Secret Society series, was titled Cabinet, and focused on secret Cabinet committees. It was also held back from broadcast, and has never subsequently been shown. The broadcast of the Cabinet episode was cancelled due to the imminent 1987 general election. The BBC subsequently rejected Campbell's attempt to buy the episode for broadcast on Channel 4 in 1991, in a season of programming about censorship. Instead the episode was remade using Campbell's scripts. In a parliamentary debate on Civil Liberties and Bill of Rights on 15 June 1989, the Labour Member of Parliament Alistair Darling, then in opposition, claimed that the true reason for the Zircon affair was to distract from the Cabinet episode of Secret Society. Darling said that "... The Government's actions are oppressive, as has been shown by their treatment of broadcasting. We saw the spectacle of police being sent to raid the BBC headquarters in Glasgow in the middle of the night.... We saw the Zircon tapes seized as an elaborate blind." Darling said that the cabinet episode concerned "... the election campaign of 1983, and the fact that the Government sought to undermine and spy on the citizens of this country. Their object was to prevent the programme from being shown, and the Zircon affair was a blind."
- "BBC Scotland television producer Brian Barr dies". BBC News Online. 29 October 2013. Retrieved 18 April 2014.
- Aldrich 2011, p. 459
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