John Ashley Berry
| John Ashley Berry|
(spook, whistleblower, social worker)
|Exposed|| • GCHQ|
• mass surveillance
John Ashley Berry is a former British Army Signals Intelligence operator at GCHQ who, on 18 February 1977, was arrested with two journalists, Crispin Aubrey and Duncan Campbell, and charged with “communicating classiﬁed information to unauthorised persons” under Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act 1911.
It was because John Berry had earlier written to the National Council for Civil Liberties, (which was under General Secretary Patricia Hewitt – future Secretary of State for Health) and had campaigned for Mark Hosenball and Philip Agee to get a fair trial for having exposed GCHQ activities, that Campbell and Aubrey decided to interview him for Time Out magazine.
At their 18 February meeting, the two journalists discovered that Berry's knowledge was largely out of date, rendering the encounter journalistically unproductive. Upon their exit from Berry's home, however, all three were arrested by Special Branch and charged under the Official Secrets Act 1911.
Police were alerted to the meeting since Campbell had been placed under surveillance by MI5 and Special Branch following revelations in a Time Out article, "The Eavesdroppers", the previous year detailed secret government spying agency GCHQ.
The three were arrested at John Berry’s ﬂat and were then held without bail for 7 days, Berry was accused of passing on information to Campbell and Aubrey who were then arrested for receiving "highly classiﬁed" information.
I stepped from the warmth of our source’s London flat. That February night in 1977, the air was damp and cool, the buzz of traffic muted in this leafy North London suburb, in the shadow of the iconic Alexandra Palace. A fellow journalist and I had just spent three hours inside, drinking Chianti and talking about secret surveillance with our source, and now we stood on the doorstep discussing how to get back to the south coast town where I lived.
Events were about to take me on a different journey. Behind me, sharp footfalls broke the stillness. A squad was running, hard, toward the porch of the house we had left. Suited men surrounded us. A burly middle-aged cop held up his police ID. We had broken “Section 2″ of Britain’s secrecy law, he claimed. These were “Special Branch,” then the elite security division of the British police.
For a split second, I thought this was a hustle. I knew that a parliamentary commission had released a report five years earlier that concluded that the secrecy law, first enacted a century ago, should be changed. I pulled out my journalist identification card, ready to ask them to respect the press.
But they already knew that my companion that evening, Time Out reporter Crispin Aubrey, and I were journalists. And they had been outside, watching our entire meeting with former British Army signals intelligence (SIGINT) operator John Berry, who at the time was a social worker.
Aubrey and I were arrested on suspicion of possessing unauthorised information. They said we’d be taken to the local police station. But after being forced into cars, we were driven in the wrong direction, toward the centre of London. I became uneasy.
It was soon apparent that the elite squad had no idea where the local police station was. They stopped and asked a taxi to lead them there. We were then locked up overnight, denied bail and sent to London’s Brixton prison.
Aubrey had recorded our interview. During three hours of tapes that the cops took from Aubrey, Berry had revealed spying on Western allies. When the tape was transcribed, every page was stamped “SECRET” in red, top and bottom. Then, with a red felt-tip pen, “Top” was methodically written in front of each “SECRET.”
Our discussion was considered so dangerous that we — two reporters and a social worker — were placed on the top floor of the prison maximum security wing, which guards told us had formerly held terrorists, serial murderers, gang leaders and child rapists. Meanwhile, police stripped my home of every file, every piece of paper I had, and 400 books.
Charges and trials
On 9 August 1977, Campbell was also charged with “…for a purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the state, collecting information concerning defence communications that might, directly or indirectly, be useful to an enemy.” The case was the adjourned until 7 November 1977 for a hearing before Magistrates.
The ABC Trial at the Old Bailey began on 5 September 1978 but was abandoned on 22 September when it was revealed that the foreman of the jury in the ABC case was an ex-SAS soldier and the defence counsel had argued that as the SAS had close links to intelligence and "counter-terrorist" units he may not have had an open mind on the case. Two other members of the jury has signed the Official secrets act.
On 3 October 1978 the second trial opened at the Old Bailey and each juror now had to declare any involvement with the armed services within the last 15 years leading to one juror being asked to stand down.
On Thursday, 16 November 1978 Duncan Campbell was found guilty at the Central Criminal Court of receiving information about British Signals Intelligence from former soldier John Berry. On the previous Tuesday Crispin Aubrey had been found guilty of abetting Campbell, and Berry guilty of communicating information to Campbell. They were sentenced by Mr. Justice Mars-Jones as follows:
- Aubrey: Conditionally discharged for three years and ordered to pay £2,500 towards prosecution costs and a third of his own.
- Berry: Sentenced to six months imprisonment, suspended for two years and ordered to pay £250 defence costs.
- Campbell: Conditionally discharged for three years and ordered to pay £2,500 towards defence costs and £2,500 towards his own.
40 years on
In November 2017, marking the 40th anniversary of the arrests of the ABC three, John Berry and Duncan Campbell took part in a panel discussion with Statewatch Director Tony Bunyan and Sarah Kavanagh, NUJ Senior Campaigns and communications officer, looking at the events from those involved in 1977 and considering its legacy today.
The event was organised by Aubrey’s family as part of the Crispin Aubrey Legacy Fund set up to support aspiring journalists and in conjunction with the University of West of England’s Film and Journalism Department and Bristol Festival of Ideas.
- "Document:GCHQ and Me: My Life Unmasking British Eavesdroppers"
- "ABC Case"
- Section 2 Official Secrets Act, 1911"
- "The ABC Trial"
- "The ABC Trial", Kevin Hall, 22 August 2006
- "The ABC Secrecy Trial – 40 Years On"