Government officials are planning to review the historic D-notice system, which warns the media not to publish intelligence that might damage security, in the wake of the Guardian's stories about mass surveillance by the security services based on leaks
from the US whistleblower Edward Snowden .
Sources said Jon Thompson, the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Defence, was setting up an inquiry into the future of the committee, raising fears that the voluntary censorship system also known as
the DA-notice could be made compulsory.
The committee is supposed to be consulted when news organisations are considering publishing material relating to secret intelligence or the military. It is staffed by senior civil servants and media
representatives, who give advice on the publication of sensitive stories. Minutes of a recent meeting reveal the comment: The events of the last few months had undoubtedly raised questions in some minds about the system's future usefulness.
In his latest report, its secretary, Air Vice-Marshal Andrew Vallance, raised concerns about the parallel publication of Snowden's revelations by newspapers around the world, noting that at the outset the Guardian had avoided engaging with the
DA-notice system before publishing the first tranche of information .
UK Ministry of Defence officials issued a confidential D notice to the BBC and other media groups in an attempt to censor coverage of surveillance tactics employed by intelligence agencies in the UK and US.
Editors were asked not to publish
information that may jeopardise both national security and possibly UK personnel in the warning issued on 7 June, a day after the Guardian first revealed details of the National Security Agency's (NSA) secret Prism programme .
The D notice
was made public on the Westminster gossip blog, Guido Fawkes . Although only advisory for editors, the censorship system is intended to prevent the media from making inadvertent public disclosure of information that would compromise UK military and
intelligence operations and methods.
Governments, organisations and media across the world have been put on alert as whistleblowing site Wikileaks looks set to release millions of diplomatic communications.
As Wikileaks prepares to expose a huge cache of classified diplomatic
communications, the US has warned allies that new revelations may lead to public embarrassment. The cables are expected to expose sensitive foreign policy issues including corruption allegations against foreign governments and leaders, and clandestine US
support for terrorism.
In what appears to be a harm minimisation strategy the US government has embarked on an impressive briefing campaign, reaching out to allies across the world.
In its efforts to manage the release and ensure its
views are represented in the ensuing debate, the US has been vocal. In an email the Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs to the Senate and House Armed Services Committee Elizabeth King said: State Department cables by their nature contain
everyday analysis and candid assessments that any government engages in as part of effective foreign relations…. The publication of this classified information by WikiLeaks is an irresponsible attempt to wreak havoc … It potentially
As news breaks that the UK government has issued a DA notice, effectively asking to be briefed by newspaper editors before any new revelations are published it worth noting that there is no obligation on media to comply.
DA-notices point to a set of guidelines, agreed by the government departments and the media. In this case newspaper editors would speak to Defence, Press and Broadcasting Advisory Committee prior to publication.
The official history of the D notice system, the voluntary self-censorship arrangement between the media and Whitehall, has just been published - though, ironically, only after five chapters had been excised.
The history, written by Rear
Admiral Nicholas Wilkinson, one of the more enlightened past secretaries of the Committee, provides telling insights into the relationships between editors and Britain's defence, security and intelligence establishment. The voluntary nature of the D
notice system - it has no legal status - meant that personal friendships were crucial. Some would say they still are.
Plans are afoot to publish the full history - including the past 12 years - as soon as Labour is out of power. Self-censorship
acts in mysterious ways.
Seven D-notices were sent to all UK newspaper editors by the Defence Press and Broadcasting Advisory Committee (DPBAC) in 2007 and a further five so far this year, Defence Minister Kevan Jones revealed in a written parliamentary reply published.
This compares with just two being issued in each of the previous three years from 2003, one in 2002, three in 2001, two in 2000, three in 1999 and none in either 1998 or 1997.
The D-Notice system, which is a virtual blanket publication ban, is a voluntary code that began back in 1912 to provide guidance to the British media on the publication or broadcasting of national security information.
The committee, a
joint government-media body, says the objective is to prevent inadvertent public disclosure of information that would compromise UK military and intelligence operations and methods, or put at risk the safety of those involved in such operations, or
lead to attacks that would damage the critical national infrastructure and/or endanger lives.
No details are given of the latest bans. Some journalists have argued that the bans often include subjects that are merely unflattering to
government, rather than a matter of national defence and thus are a form of soft censorship.
There is a long tradition of the military suppressing news that it considers detrimental to national security by slapping a D-notice on it.
But when the D-notice committee decided that the time was ripe to publish its own official history,
nobody imagined that it would fall victim to its own system. The history of the D-notice committee has, in effect, had a D-notice slapped on it by the D-notice committee.
Secrecy and the Media , written by Rear-Admiral Nick Wilkinson, who
was secretary of the committee from 1999 to 2004, should have been hitting all good bookshops this month, according to the academic publisher Routledge's website.
The book will now be published in May, but without its final five chapters. These
cover the Blair years, charting the winding-down of the Irish terrorist campaigns and the War on Terror.
The censored chapters will eventually be published in a later edition of the book after a change of administration.
The Times has
learnt that the manuscript was cleared for publication by all the relevant government departments – MI5, SIS, GCHQ and the Foreign, Home and Cabinet offices, as well as the Treasury Solicitor and the Attorney-General. However, when it arrived at the
Ministry of Defence it was passed not to the department's security and legal experts but to the current D-notice secretary, Air Vice-Marshal Andrew Vallance.
He advised that the book be withdrawn altogether for reasons of style and structure,
and that a new official history should be commissioned, to be written instead by a trained historian , a source has told The Times. He said: It's poorly presented history. It's very thorough, but it's just difficult to read.
air vice-marshal's view was endorsed by the MoD
Popular mythology portrays Defence Advisory (DA) Notices - commonly known as 'D-Notices' - as a cosy and very British form of censorship, 'slapped on' news stories by unaccountable officials intent on violating the media's duty to report in the public
interest. Apart from the 'very British' bit, none of this is remotely true.
Firstly, the DA-Notice System is completely voluntary; the advice offered under it can be accepted or rejected in whole or in part. It's rare for any news organisation to
ignore DA-Notice advice, but that's because it protects a narrowly-defined area which government and media alike recognise to be of vital public importance. The System doesn't cover corruption, politics, scandal, embarrassment or a host of other things
that officialdom might wish to keep closeted; it just covers the truly core elements of national security.
Dating back to 1912, the System has been advisory and transparent since 1993. Although sometimes the subject of controversy, it mostly
operates discretely and in the background.
However, there is no lack of accountability, even though the DA-Notice advice given to individual journalists is strictly confidential. The system is overseen by the Defence, Press and Broadcasting
Advisory Committee, composed of very senior officials from the Home Office, MoD, Foreign Office and Cabinet Office and media leaders from all the main news organisations.
The Committee is chaired by the MoD Permanent Secretary, and the media
provides the vice-chair. You can read the minutes of the Committee's meetings on the DA-Notice website: www.dnotice.org.uk
Also to be found on the website are the five standing DA-Notices. This 'code' covers military operations, weapons, secure
communications, sensitive installations and intelligence operations.
The System is normally triggered when a journalist doing a story on an aspect of national security realises it might be covered by DA-Notice guidance.
The acid test here
is whether any part of the story might somehow put British troops, military or intelligence operations or members of the public at greater risk.
The first thing to do is to check the 'dnotice' website; if still in doubt then simply call the DA
Notice Secretary. He can advise from his own knowledge or - if necessary - check out the details (in strict confidence) with the relevant experts (e.g. in MI5, MI6, Whitehall or the Armed Forces).
It's very rare for an agreement not to be
reached that allows the core story to go ahead. If journalists and editors are not convinced about any changes proposed, they are fully entitled not to accept them.
Sometimes the Secretary will take the lead and alert editors to national security
sensitivities in an emerging story.
From time to time, other options have been considered, but media and government alike continue to see the DA-Notice System - imperfect though it is - as probably the best way to manage the disclosure of national
security information in a 21st century democracy.