To Catch A Spy: Margaret Thatcher, Peter Wright & the Spycatcher Affair: The Secret History of A Very English Espionage Farce
Tim Tate

To Catch A Spy: Margaret Thatcher, Peter Wright  & the Spycatcher Affair: The Secret History of A Very English Espionage Farce

Between 1985 and 1991, the British Government fought a succession of vastly expensive battles in courts across the world to prevent retired MI5 officer Peter Wright from publishing his memoirs. His book, Spycatcher, exposed Soviet penetration of British spy agencies and Wright’s obsessive and relentless hunt for ‘moles’, including former MI5 Director General Sir Roger Hollis. But it also revealed that MI5 indulged in wholesale law-breaking, while Wright and a cabal of rogue intelligence officers also mounted an extraordinary plot to blackmail Prime Minister Harold Wilson into resignation.


The Spycatcher trials in London, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Brussels and Strasbourg captured unprecedented global attention. In court, Britain’s most senior civil servant, Cabinet Secretary Sir Robert Armstrong, was pilloried in the witness box for being “economical with the truth”; meanwhile publishers were threatened – one was burgled - and newspapers were gagged by draconian injunctions. The affair was viewed as both a chilling attempt to hide from the British public the truth about its intelligence services and political elites, and an absurd farce.


The Government argued that former spies had a lifelong and unbreakable duty to keep silent, yet it had sanctioned briefings and even books by other MI5 officers. Facts were simultaneously admitted as true in court, but pronounced false in Parliament; sales of Spycatcher were illegal in Britain, but there was no prohibition on imported copies; whilst British media was banned from publishing any reference to the book’s contents, the Government itself had to print official journals containing extracts which had been recited in the European Parliament; and a former Prime Minister was warned he faced prosecution if he read it for himself.


Not since the equally-doomed bid to ban publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover two decades earlier had the attempted suppression of a book generated such ridicule and condemnation.  The Spycatcher trials cost taxpayers the modern equivalent of £10 million; all ended in defeat for the British Government, and the doomed litigation helped bring the intelligence services under Parliamentary control for the first time.


But the secret history of Spycatcher, Peter Wright and the British Government’s crusade to silence him, is an even more sinister story. Previously unpublished evidence from the Australian trials, together with official files withheld for almost forty years, have revealed a plot by MI5 and Thatcher’s Government to conceal Britain’s most damaging espionage failures by lying to courts around the world, and by deliberately misleading Parliament.


Drawing on thousands of pages of court transcripts – many of them never previously published – the contents of still-secret British Government files, and original interviews with many of the key players, To Catch A Spy is the story of Peter Wright’s obsession to uncover Russian spies, both real and imagined, his belated determination to reveal the truth - and the lengths to which the British Government would go to silence him. 

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Tim Tate

Tim Tate

Tim is a multi-award winning documentary film-maker, investigative journalist and best-selling author. Over a 30-year career he produced and directed almost 90 films for all British terrestrial channels as well as Discovery, A&E & Court Television networks in the United States.   His films have been honoured by Amnesty International, the Royal Television Society, UNESCO, the International Documentary Association, the Association for International Broadcasting, the [US] National Academy of Cable Broadcasting and the New York Festivals.   Tim’s 1992 documentary ...
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Book Reviews

  • "Tim Tate unpicks the fascinating complexity of the Spycatcher affair, as old as the Cold War but as current and as relevant as a Prime Minister deliberately sending her right hand man to tell lies under oath. In a wilderness of mirrors, the worst betrayal was in Number 10."
    Honourable Malcolm Turnbull
  • "Tim Tate reveals an extraordinary tale of spying scandals, mixed with Government skulduggery, which spiralled out of control and turned into a prolonged and very English farce."
    Rt. Hon. Neil (Lord) Kinnock, former leader of Labour Party (1983–1992)