Amid the anticipation about the latest Wikileak, there has been a lot of ill-informed comment (and sometimes downright lies) about the role of the Defence, Press and Broadcasting Advisory Committee and the DA notice system which it regulates. Cries of censorship abound.
The blogger Guido Fawkes last night reproduced the advisory notice sent out by the secretary of the committee to all media, having earlier claimed it was an “attempt at a news blackout.”
WikiLeaks themselves tweeted “UK Government has issued a “D-notice” warning to all UK news editors, asking to be briefed on upcoming WikiLeaks stories.” Both these claims are innacurate and reflect a serious misunderstanding of the DA-Notice system.
As I am the Vice-Chair of the committee, and chair of the media side, it falls to me to clarify the facts. The Committee is a peculiarly British idea. It is a voluntary arrangement between the media and various branches of government to try to prevent the unwitting publication of anything which might endanger life or threaten national security.
It has a secretary – currently a retired, senior Air Force officer, who is completely independent. There are five standing Defence Advisory notices which you can see on the DA notice website. They cover subjects including military operations, intelligence activities and critical infrastructure – basically the sort of things the UK’s enemies would like to know more about.
More importantly, they don’t cover embarrassment or cock-ups. The government cannot, as is commonly believed, “slap a D notice” on something (though it is true that at one time they could). Now government departments can make a case to the secretary that they would prefer something was not published, and he decides if it’s covered by one of the five notices. If he does, he may issue an advisory letter to editors asking them to seek his advice about the story. The role of the DPBAC is to ensure that the notices do not stray outside the strict parameters of safeguarding national security,
Journalists are free to reject the secretary’s advice, but it’s rare. In practice, most of the time the journalist and the secretary negotiate a compromise where the journalist can still do the story but agrees to omit anything which might put lives or national security at risk. If a journalists argues the information has already been widely published and is in the public domain, the secretary may agree that republication can do no harm.
It’s worth noting that In other countries, for example France, the law is weighted much more in favour of the state and journalists tend to operate a much greater degree of self censorship.
From the perspective of the media, all censorship is anathema, but especially self censorship. Our default position is to publish and if necessary be damned. So the journalists on the committee inevitably have an uncomfortable feeling about it. But we do it because we think it’s better than the alternatives: on the one hand a coercive system in which journalists face being prosecuted and maybe locked up for reporting state secrets, or on the other the possibility that military forces or intelligence agents working to keep us safe have their own lives or their work endangered.
The crux of the matter is that no one, I’d argue, would want blood on their hands, however good the story.