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Last Updated: 10 Dec 2013

Summary of Questions

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About System

What are the benefits of the DA-Notice system?

  • It provides a set of guidelines, agreed by representatives of the government departments directly concerned with national security and of all elements from the British Media. It informs editors, broadcasters, authors, publishers and others about what types of information need to be protected, and provides the basis for prior negotiation when there is disagreement about what should be disclosed to the general public;
  • It also provides a negotiator (the DA-Notice Secretary) who is available to both sides 365 days a year;
  • Negotiation normally provides a solution acceptable to both sides, ie. the story goes out with only a few genuinely secret details removed;
  • It is much quicker, cheaper and more satisfactory than legal recourse, which also tends to block a whole story or source rather than just a few details.

Do all editors, etc. have to use the system?

  • No, it is voluntary, and even when they do use the system, they do not have to accept the advice of the DA-Notice Secretary nor accede to his requests. The final decision as to whether to publish or broadcast something is that of the editor.

What powers does the DA-Notice Secretary/Committee have?

  • None, except those of persuasion.

Why does the media follow a voluntary code, surely they want to publish or broadcast their stories in full?

  • All editors do indeed want to publish or broadcast their story, but most do not want to publish or broadcast something which really would be damaging to national security operations or to lives. If therefore they are persuaded that some detail would do damage, they usually agree not to publish or broadcast it.

If an editor does publish/broadcast (or threaten to) something which is damaging, what does the DA-Notice system do about it?

  • Nothing.

Does the Government do anything if an editor decides to publish/broadcast something that is likely to damage national security?

  • In serious cases, the government department concerned can initiate police and/or legal action, including seeking a court injunction to stop something being published.

Why does the government not always do this, rather than rely on a voluntary system?

  • It is costly and time-consuming, and often creates adverse publicity, and there is no guarantee that the judge will uphold the government's case. It can also be taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut, when the government is usually concerned to protect some detail, eg agents' names, rather than stop a story completely, which injunctions tend to do.

What is meant by ‘slapping a D-Notice on’ something?

  • This very dated phrase is still used by some people, and sounds dramatic, but it is no longer what actually happens! DA-Notices are not issued for particular incidents. The 5 standing Notices cover various eventualities, and, if necessary, the DA-Notice Secretary draws and editor's’ attention to the DA-Notice Secretary to the advice in the appropriate Notice.

Is the DA-Notice system a form of censorship?

  • No, by definition a voluntary system cannot be censorship, and the DA-Notice system is a form of guided media self-regulation. It does sometimes provide reasons for self-regulation by editors and others, in the same way that they are faced with self-regulation for all kinds of other reasons – legal, moral, financial, public taste, etc.

How does the DA-Notice Secretary know when his advice is needed?

  • A request to get involved may come from the media, for example a news room ringing to say they intend to publish or broadcast a particular story which they realise may contain matters covered by the DA-Notices;
  • Or a request may come from officials, for example The Secret Intelligence Service being aware that a TV company has been filming activities that might reveal the identities of some of their agents;
  • Or the DA-Notice Secretary himself might learn from his own contacts or reading, for example that a book about the SAS is to be published.
  • When an important national security issue emerges in which the media might inadvertently publish or broadcast information which could damage national security, the Secretary writes to all UK editors alerting them to consider seeking his advice before releasing sensitive details.
  • When sensitive information which might result in damage to national security has been released inadvertently by a newspaper or broadcast channel, the Secretary may contact the Editor concerned to point this out and offer his advice to avoid further inadvertent disclosure of this type.

What does the Secretary do in such cases?

  • He advises the media, if necessary after himself taking expert advice from the government department concerned, on what details would be damaging, for example something that would ‘blow’ a current or planned operation, or would endanger the life or effectiveness of an agent;
  • He suggests how identities might be concealed, for example in photographs or film by pixelation;
  • He negotiates if necessary between the media and the department concerned so that as much as possible can be published without genuine damage being done.

May not ‘damage’ just be official embarrassment when something has gone wrong?

  • Not as far as the DA-Notice System is concerned; political and official embarrassment are not reasons for excluding material from public disclosure.

Does the Secretary not have to accept the officials’ version of events, and support their line?

  • No, the Secretary has to be convinced by officials of the need for secrecy, and to advise them if he believes either that their rationale is not in accord with the DA-Notices or that their view is unsustainable, for example because the facts are already widely in the public domain.

If a book or article or programme has been cleared through the DA-Notice system, does that mean that everything in it is true?

  • No, only that there is nothing which is seriously damaging to national security as defined by the DA-Notice code.

If a fact has been published somewhere, does that mean that it can then be republished even if it is damaging to national security?

  • It depends how and where it has been published. The DA-Notice 5 guidance specifies, for example, that something must be ‘been widely disclosed or discussed’ for it to be not covered. That said, there is an element of subjective judgement about what is ‘in the public domain’. A statement by a writer with no authority in an obscure publication, or even on a hard-to-find website, does not have the wide disclosure of a major British newspaper, or the authority of a reputable author of a book. Each case therefore has to be assessed on its merits.

Does the DA-Notice system apply to the Internet?

  • It does, but, because of the international nature of the net, matters published on foreign websites, like matters published in foreign newspapers, are beyond the influence of the DA-Notice system. How the law (on libel, copyright, commerce, etc, quite apart from that on secrecy) is being applied to the Internet varies from country to country, and there is therefore considerable confusion at present. The position of UK Internet Service Providers as ‘publishers’ is also still unclear. In July 2008 Google agreed to provide a member for the DPBAC to ensure it was fully aware of the implications of all that was happening in this rapidly developing and increasingly important field.

Does the internet mean that the DA-Notice System is no longer operable?

  • The DA-Notice system has never been a 100% watertight system. Not only its voluntary nature, but also the enormous diversity of the British media (including some small outlets that have never followed the DA-Notice guidance), mean that it has always been a ‘damage limitation’ mechanism. The internet has produced some new considerations, and has the increasing importance of citizen journalism assisted by the opportunities for real-time reporting using information technology. There are many unanswered questions about the future, but the very size and diversity of the net means that, just because something is on a foreign website, it does not necessarily mean that it has immediately been widely seen.

What is ‘National Security’?

  • It is a phrase widely used in legislation, but there is in fact no definition. As far as the DA-Notices are concerned, although no definition of National Security is given, the Committee has provided instead a context of scale, that the threat must involve ‘grave danger to the State and/or individuals’, and it is in this context that areas of National Security covered with some precision in the Notices should be read.

Are all books on DA-Notice subjects dealt with under the DA-Notice System?

  • Not all books. In the main, the DA-Notice Secretary only gets involved if either the publisher/author or the Department concerned asks for his advice or his assistance as an honest broker. In recent years, requests for DA Notice advice on books has grown steadily and by 2008 it was running at about one per month. This trend is expected to continue, especially so now that the (Book) Publishers' Association is represented on the DPBAC.

What about when a government department initiates police/legal action against an editor or author?

  • This usually happens when the DA-Notice system has not be used by the media for some reason, or when a government department is so concerned that serious damage is imminent that they wish to take immediate preventative action. The DA-Notice Secretary is not involved in police/legal action.

What happens if information provided by the media to the Secretary, when they are using the DA-Notice system, reveals a possible breach of, for example, the Official Secrets Act?

  • All discussion between the media and the Secretary is carried out in confidence, and government departments do not subsequently initiate police/legal action unless they have information from some other source (possibly the published article or book, of course). The Secretary therefore makes every effort to point out to the media any material which he thinks might be in breach of an injunction or which might be an offence under some Act, but he is not himself a legal expert and therefore sometimes advises consulting the Treasury Solicitor for expert legal advice, in order to head off possible police/legal action.

Does any other country have anything similar to the DA-Notice System?

  • Australia used to have a system the origins of which were similar to that of the early DA Notices, but it is now effectively moribund. A survey carried out by the DA-Notice Secretary in 2009 of the approaches used by other countries to regulate or guide public disclosures of sensitive national security information found no evidence that any other country has ever had such a system. Most countries have some form of official secrets act or acts, and a professional journalist code of conduct, (as indeed does the UK), but no other country has an established advisory system with publicly disclosed guidelines.

Why does the UK have a system like this when no other country does?

  • National approaches to the public disclosure of sensitive national security information are rooted in the culture and history of the country concern. This British approach - in effect "a gentleman's agreement" - is one which is in tune with our culture of preferring flexible and voluntary agreements over mandatory obligations. Hence, the DA-Notice System is by no means necessarily appropriate - let alone transferrable - to other countries with quite different cultures, traditions, and histories. The DA-Notice System continues to work for us, and while it can never offer a 100% guarantee that sensitive national security information will not be disclosed, it plays a valuable part in alerting the media to the consequences of disclosing certain types of information and leaving them to judge whether to publish or broadcast.

About Defence, Press & Broadcasting Advisory Committee

How are the five officials on the Committee chosen?

  • They are ex-officio posts. The Chairman, for mainly historical reasons, is the Permanent Under Secretary of the Ministry of Defence. His/her deputy covers Ministry of Defence interests, in particular Special Forces and Defence Intelligence. The Cabinet Office representative covers the security interlligence coordination issues. The Home Office representative covers Security Service and legislative matters, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office representative covers Secret Intelligence Service and Government Communications Headquarters matters.

How are the fifteen media members of the DPBAC chosen?

  • They are nominated by the various media organisations, namely BBC, ITV, ITN, Sky TV, Periodical Publishers Association (2), Newspaper Publishers Association (3), Newspaper Society (2), Press Association, the Scottish Daily Newspaper Society, the Society of Editors and the (Book) Publishers' Association. The media members choose their own chairman who is also DPBAC Vice-Chairman.

Is the occasional description in the media of the media representatives as ‘token journalists’ on an official committee accurate?

  • Obviously not! Quite apart from the media representatives being in a substantial majority, the Committee itself is independent, and is not responsible to any political or departmental organisation. The media representatives do not just respond to official initiatives, but also put forward their own, for example suggesting the recent revision of the DA-Notices. Discussion by both media and official representatives is ‘full and frank’, and agreements are arrived at mutually.

About DA-Notice Secretary

Is the DA-Notice Secretary not really just another official?

  • He is indeed paid as a temporary civil servant, and accommodated and administratively supported by the Ministry of Defence. This, however, is for convenience only. In practice, he does not belong to the Ministry of Defence or to any other department. He works for the Committee, and is similarly independent. He must work equally for the media-side and for the official-side. His high security clearances enable him to be privy to as many secret matters as is necessary for him to be able to make judgements in his work, in impartially interpreting the DA-Notices for the benefit of media and officials alike. He is also privy to as much unpublished media information as is thought necessary to enable him to represent media views to officials.

How is the Secretary selected?

  • The post is advertised amongst recently retired public servants, and the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the Committee make the final selection.

What qualifications are required in selecting the Secretary?

  • Experience and a good knowledge of the workings of the governmental system, military knowledge, some knowledge of the secret intelligence and security agencies, some knowledge of the media, high security clearances, sufficient stature to deal easily with all levels of officials and media, good negotiating skills, no past or present conflicts of interest with the areas of DA-Notice interest. In practice, this has so far meant a retired 2-star officer from one of the armed services. 

Does the DA-Notice Secretary work alone?

  • He is supported by a part-time PA, and has a part-time Deputy who works only when he himself is on leave.

How is the DA-Notice system funded?

  • Through the Top Office Group budget of the Ministry of Defence. The salaries and running costs amount to approximately £150K per annum. This arrangement is merely for administrative convenience, and the DA-Notice Secretariat could equally be housed and funded by other Departments of State with responsibilities for national secruity, or indeed in commercial premises ( albeit in this last case with considerable extra expense and inconvenience). Given that the DA-Notice System is a public service, the media has always taken the view that its administration should be funded from public sources.

Does the DPBAC deal with complaints about media activity?

  • Only if directly relevant to endangering National Security. Otherwise, complaints should be addressed to The Press Complaints Commission (http://www.pcc.org.uk).