Sarah Tisdall

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Person.png Sarah Tisdall  Rdf-icon.png

Publicising US nuclear weapons deployments in the UK

A former UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office clerical officer, Sarah Tisdall was jailed for leaking British government documents to a newspaper in 1983. [1] She anonymously sent The Guardian photocopied documents detailing when American cruise missile nuclear weapons would be arriving in the United Kingdom. The documents set out the political tactics Michael Heseltine, then defence minister, would use to present the matter in the House of Commons.

No 'Threat to National Security'

There was no threat to national security in the revelation but the Government nonetheless brought a legal action against The Guardian, seeking an order requiring the newspaper to reveal its source. Although The Guardian successfully argued that it was protected by section 10 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 from providing the information. The judgement by Justice Scott was reversed on appeal.[2] The appeal by the Attorney General was on the grounds that – although the documents themselves were harmless – a civil servant capable of leaking them, might leak other documents which could pose a threat to national security.

Tell-tale photo-copies

The Guardian complied with a court order to hand over the documents, which were identified as coming from an FCO photocopying machine. The machine led to Tisdall who, when confronted with the evidence, pleaded guilty to a charge under the UK Official Secrets Act 1911. She was sentenced to six months in jail but was released after four months.

House of Lords Decision

The legality of the Order (compelling the Guardian to surrender the documents, and thus reveal their source) was upheld in a decision of the House of Lords (Secretary of State for Defence v. Guardian Newspapers Ltd. [1985] AC 339) by a majority of three against two.


  1. Parliamentary Question by Tam Dalyell MP
  2. Peter Preston "A source of great regret", The Guardian, 5 September 2005