“A Gentleman’s Agreement”: Censorship or Self-Restraint? – the “DA Notice” system

25 08 2011

DA Notice Committee

There was a time when journalists and campaigners were up in arms about the system of “D-Notices” – warnings issued to the media not to report on matters concerning national security.   Over recent years, as “spy stories” have largely disappeared from the press, the committee which issues these notices – which has renamed itself the “DA-Notice” Committee – has fallen back into relative obscurity.  This is, perhaps, where it would prefer to remain.   However, on Tuesday 23 August 2011 Naomi Grimley presented a fascinating Radio 4 programme about the committee, “D for Discretion: Can the Modern Media Keep a Secret?” (currently available on iPlayer here).

The DA Notice system is a voluntary code that provides guidance to the media on the publication or broadcasting of national security information. The objective is said to be 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“.

The “DA Notice” committee does have a website.  The Committee consists of 16 media representatives and 5 civil servants, with a secretary who is always a retired member of the armed forces.  The list of “media representatives” is a fascinating one: including Sky News, the Financial Times, the Daily Mail, the Press Association, ITN, News International, the Society of Editors, the BBC and, perhaps most surprisingly, Google.

The Committee – which has been in existence since 1912 – meets twice a year at the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall.  For the first 40 years its existence was not publicly known.  The Committee deals only with issues of national security, apparently refusing for example, to get involved with stories about the Royal Family.  It is entirely voluntary – a “gentleman’s agreement”.  According to the programme its advice is “rarely ignored” although Robertson and Nicol point out in their book Media Law (5th Edn, p.657), shortly after 9/11 the media were asked by the Committee not speculate on any retaliatory military action in Afghanistan – which was largely ignored as the US press was full of just such speculation.

There are, at present, five “Standing DA-Notices” covering

  • Military Operations, Plans & Capabilities
  • Nuclear and Non-Nuclear Weapons and Equipment
  • Ciphers and Secure Communications
  • Sensitive Installations and Home Addresses
  • United Kingdom Security & Intelligence Special Services

In the programme Bob Satchwell of the Society of Editors – who is on the committee – says  “I don’t think it’s self-censorship. It’s self-restraint.”  The current Secretary, Air Vice-Marshal Andrew Vallance,says

There isn’t any real pressure I can apply to journalists.  All I can try to do is to convince them of the consequences if they publish or broadcast certain information which might damage national security.”

The programme points out that critics of the DA Notice System argue it is now just a relic of the past and a “cosy establishment club”.  It is also clear that the internet and social media mean that it is difficult to achieve a complete news blackout on anything.  The Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence, Ursula Brennan, is quoted as saying

“Of course once something has gone viral and it’s everywhere it’s no longer a secret. “But not everyone is on Twitter. The vast bulk of people still don’t actually see that information until it gets disseminated by one of the mainstream newspapers or broadcasters.”

The last word on the programme goes to Simon Bucks, the lead media representative on the committee and a senior editor at Sky News:

“If there came a day when there was so much news on Twitter which we wanted to publish and which we were still being asked to suppress, then that would be a real problem. But right now I still feel comfortable with the system. It’s the best of the bad options.”

This is not a view supported by Robertson and Nicol whose conclusion about the Committee is

“it remains a form of censorship by wink and nudge, by threat and through the complicity of media executives.  It is astonishing that editors try and give credence to this discredited Committee by remaining members of it” (ibid, p.657).

Censorship or sensible self-restraint?  It is worth listening to the programme to form a view.


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