The Zircon affair was an incident in 1986 and 1987 that raised many important issues in the British constitution.
During the winter of 1985–1986, journalist Duncan Campbell was commissioned by the BBC Scotland to make six half-hour television documentaries under the title Secret Society. For one programme, Campbell had unearthed some details on a secret spy-satellite project, code name Zircon, that had escaped the statutory financial scrutiny of the Public Accounts Committee. The BBC became increasingly concerned and nervous about the series and approached the government for advice. The government demanded that the programme on Zircon be shelved, on the grounds of national security, and the BBC complied. A second episode, titled Cabinet, was also held back.
Campbell then wrote an article giving his account of the episode for the New Statesman magazine.
He 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.
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.
- Zircon (satellite)
- BBC controversies
- Bradley, A.W. (1987) “Parliamentary privilege and the Zircon affair”, Public Law, Spring, pp 1–3.
- Bradley, A.W. (1987) “Parliamentary privilege, Zircon and national security” Public Law, Winter, pp 488–495.
- Milne, A. (1989) D.G.: Memoirs of a British Broadcaster. ISBN 0-340-49750-5.