The Spy Who Went Public

21 July 2017

What do the director of the Bourne trilogy and the Australian prime minister have in common? Thirty years ago they were brought together during the trial over publication of the controversial book Spycatcher. Malcolm Turnbull, the current Australian Prime Minister was then a 32 year old barrister who defended the Australian publishers Heinemann. The book was written by Paul Greengrass (the director of the Bourne series) and Peter Wright, a former MI5 intelligence officer who had breached a duty of confidence in attempting to publish his memoirs.

The episode has become a distant anecdote in the history of the official secrets act and military intelligence. But the problem of "bad leavers" who threaten to – or indeed do – divulge confidential information is still as relevant today. What can businesses learn from MI5's handling of a previously patriotic scientist who was later described as having caused  “mayhem” within the British secret service?

The issues raised by Spycatcher reflect those being dealt with by many large organisations on a day to day basis: disgruntled staff, bad leavers, dissatisfaction because of poor remuneration or lack of acknowledgement and, crucially interest from a third party. If the organisation isn’t listening it creates a void which media or competitors are only too willing to fill.

Despite the passage of time, there are four themes which are as relevant today:


While money is undoubtedly a catalyst, the underlying causes of employee disloyalty can probably be traced back to lack of acknowledgement. Described as a “sad” and “chippy” figure who was “consumed with a desire to belong”, one theory was that Wright may never have had an incentive to write Spycatcher if he had been given some form of acknowledgment by the Intelligence Service. In an interview in late 1986 about his motivation for the trial, Wright answered: “[The government] had absolutely every opportunity to come and discuss it with me. I wrote papers and books but they took no action, they didn’t even come and see me”.


Without so much as an iPhone or USB Wright managed to write his memoirs in great detail. Access protocols, information security and strict confidentiality agreements not only prevent bad leavers taking information but deter them. If the leaver runs the cost / gains analysis you want the answer to be in your favour.

Receptive Environment

A bad leaver is of little threat if they have no mouthpiece and no audience. In Australia, Wright and Greengrass found the perfect environment in which to publish the memoirs.  Turnbull McWilliam, Attorneys and Solicitors, then a new legal practice, took on the case. In defending Heinemann and Wright, Turnbull effectively took on the British conservative establishment, tapping into much deeper contemporary political issues about the Australian republican movement and “pommy bashing”. In 2017 nobody needs a Heinemann for their views to be heard. The bigger the brand, the more likely they will gain attention they desire. If they can piggyback a populist cause so much the better.


Inevitably any dispute with a bad leaver, even when the claims are untrue, is likely to be cast as a “David and Goliath” battle, rendering significant legal action - and even communications strategies - challenging. Covert methods of handling a situation are likely to lead to even worse reputational consequences if they are uncovered or subsequently disclosed. As the UK government discovered, to its cost during the trial, it led to increased scrutiny on processes and procedures, not to mention criticism and calls for review of MI5 as an organisation. Preventing an environment from which bad leavers evolve should be the priority.

The key lesson however is that while the methods have changed in thirty years, the threat has not. It is still as much an issue about human psychology in 2017 as it was in 1987. But unless you want an organisation staffed by robots there will always be some employee conduct that can't be predicted or planned. One of the British Government’s responses was the passing of the Official Secrets Act (1989). 

While businesses can mirror this by ensuring it has robust confidentiality agreements, there are a lot of proactive measures an organisation put in place for little financial outlay: small gestures of appreciation, exit interviews to understand the issues behind the employee’s decision, and clearly communicated polices on information security.

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About the Author

Juliet Young


Juliet draws on over 15 years of experience in the corporate investigations and intelligence field to help clients solve reputation management and privacy problems.

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