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 jeopardizes lives.
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.
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