Sunday, 24 October 2021
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By Simon Roberts

The Defence Advisory Notice system or D-Notice as it is still often called is a voluntary set of guidelines aimed at helping the media with the publication of national security information. The guidelines fall under five categories: military operations, nuclear and non-nuclear weapons, ciphers and secure communications, sensitive installations and security and intelligence services personnel. It is the Defence Advisory Committee whom editors and publishers can choose to contact if they have any uncertainties with the stories about to be published. The committee consists of various members of the government, civil service and the media (both print and broadcast) and is chaired by the permanent Under-Secretary of State for Defence. The vice chairman is always selected from one of the committee members representing the media in order to maintain parity and ensure both sets of interests are represented.

Note: The Committee's title was changed first to the Defence, Press and Broadcasting Committee, and in 1993 to the Defence, Press and Broadcasting Advisory Committee, when the 6 standing D-Notices were renamed DA-Notices (Defence Advisory Notices). In May 2000, these were further updated and reduced to the present 5 notices.

The D-Notices themselves are intended to provide broad guidance on those areas of national security which the government feels it has a responsibility to protect. It is important to note, however, these notices have no legal force what so ever and the advice may be accepted or rejected at the editors' discretion. Even compliance with the D-Notice system does not relieve the editor of responsibilities under the Official Secrets Act.

Since 1997 there have been 30 occasions where the committee secretary has written to specific editors when a breach in the D-Notice guidelines is judged to have occurred. In such cases letters are written to remind the editor of the content of the code and the availability of advice from the committee.

In recent years the most high profile use of the D-Notice system came in August 2000 when it was reported that the government had asked the committee to contact Flight International magazine. The magazine was set to publish the findings from a report which stated that only 3 out of 150 unguided bombs, dropped by British aircraft during the conflict in Kosovo, were confirmed as hitting their targets. At the time the government claimed the issuing of the D-Notice was simply an attempt to put the report into context in order for a more balanced article to be published. However, when pressed to specify the national security implications the response cited was command and control issues.

Concerns over the reporting of events in Iraq also caused the committee to send blanket letters to all major publications. In September 2004 the then committee secretary wrote a general letter to editors on the subject of protective countermeasures used by British forces in Iraq. In it he acknowledged that it was widely known that the British forces in Iraq were employing various types of countermeasures to protect themselves against the roadside ambush techniques being used by Iraqi insurgents. He went on to advise that the publication or broadcasting of the specific details of these countermeasures would pose a real and serious danger to life.

This was followed by two other general letters issued by the committee secretary to editors (respectively 22 August and 6 October 2005) repeating and elaborating the previous advice. All of these letters were written in response to developing concerns by British commanders that the publication or broadcasting of such details risked nullifying British countermeasures and thus increasing the risks faced by members of the British forces, not only in Iraq but also in other theatres.

In the coming years, it is the use of internet reporting that threatens to undermine the D-Notice committee. With the code being a voluntary agreement between the committee and the media, there are no safeguards in place to prevent the anonymous posting online of potentially sensitive information. Legal implications arise also when said posts are made on websites which do not originate in the UK.

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