Why journalists should rally in defence of the D-notice

Until Ed, spooks and hacks have always rubbed along well. Shutterstock

In the wake of Edward Snowden affair, the government is holding a review of the operations of the Defence Press and Broadcasting Advisory Committee (DPBAC) and what is generally known as the “D-Notice” system.

This is a very agreeable early-warning system whereby any journalist covering a defence, security, or intelligence story can reliably check on the risks of putting lives at risk, or clumsily blundering into any operation that could save the country from terrorist attack or even the investigation of global organised crime, something in which spooks are now very much involved.

The D-Notice is a very modern system. Risk areas can be checked online in terms of standing Defence Advisory Notices. If you want advice 24 hours a day, you can ring the DPBAC secretary or deputies. Anything you say and any advice you get will be confidential, so there is no risk of your exclusive stories being spilled or spoiled by spin-doctors and media rivals.

The current secretary, Air Vice-Marshall Andrew Vallance and his predecessor Rear Admiral Nicholas Wilkinson, have always impressed me. They have gone out of their way to visit media publishers to brief, explain, and indeed educate. They have visited universities to talk to journalism students.

Andrew Vallance presented a multimedia lecture to 120 undergraduate and postgraduates at Goldsmiths just before Christmas that drew overwhelming appreciation and interest from tomorrow’s journalists. Vallance is totally clued up on social media, new digital platforms of communication and briefed with impartiality and understanding about the tensions and conflicting needs of the media in a democratic state that also has to be protected through arms and intelligence.

The committee that advises Vallance and his two deputies has a majority of media representatives from print, broadcasting, online and publishing. The culture encourages dialogue and understanding, tolerates disagreement and debate and is infinitely better than any alternative.

Speculation that it should be scrapped and replaced with direct MOD press office and government directed media relations is rife. This would be another disaster to add to the accelerated decline of media freedom in recent times. DPBAC is probably the last state and media liaison body constituted by agreement, effective in operation – and bereft of pomposity and the discombobulated arrogance of government by propaganda.

Press freedom under attack

When controlling the message, manipulating the news agenda, burying bad news and massaging the Fleet Street diaspora and 24-hour rolling news tower of Babel does not work, we risk a descent into authoritarianism; persecuting and jailing sources, arresting journalists at dawn and questioning them under caution in some kind of stop-and-search for hacks.

Perhaps there is a new rule emerging for the Monopoly board of risks in British journalism. Legislature, executive, academia and judiciary appear to be licking their lips at the prospect of hacks doing porridge after failing to land on the brown of Whitechapel or blue of Mayfair. Oh what it is to ask the wrong question and write the wrong answer: do not pass, go directly to jail.

Alan Rusbridger feared The Guardian’s stories would be suppressed. PA Wire

Back in the 1970s, the left-wing chattering comrades in the “alternative press” talked of D-Notices as though they were secret umbrella dart guns, with radioactive Polonium-210 tipped pellets fired by Cold War spooks in bowler hats and gas masks. The reality was always more prosaic. DPBAC is a peculiarly British method of discussion, mediation, conciliation and confidential consultation.

According to a report in the Press Gazette, the system’s potential demise arises from a Guardian story about how British security services spied on foreign powers when the UK hosted a G20 summit in 2009. Despite signing up to the Defence Advisory Notice system, the Guardian’s editor Alan Rusbridger decided not use it. Subsequently he did. At the beginning, Rusbridger and his experienced and veteran specialists on security matters feared prior-restraint injunction. What subsequently happened in The Guardian’s basement with electric saws and hard disks and the paper’s “courier” David Miranda being detained at Heathrow Airport and having all his personal electronic equipment confiscated, suggests they may have had good reason.

But intelligence and policing have a much more limited portfolio of technologies, techniques and devices than is generally imagined. Exposing without any checking on various of these techniques has pushed the boundaries.

Spooks and hacks

The history of the D-Notice system since 1912 has been punctuated with all kinds of national security and so-called media irresponsibility crises. It would not be needed if that were not the norm. As John Wilson, the former controller of BBC editorial policy, said in 1993: “Civilised bureaucracy rubbing up against decent journalism … an honourable way of tackling a problem that has no truly satisfactory solution.”

But I am convinced it has saved lives and media freedom. Going over to a freeze in government national security/media relations would be as disastrous as the current froideur between the police and media generated by the Leveson and Filkin reports.

I have been used to the sublime and ridiculous in my near 40 years of journalism, but I am so sorry to say to the very distinguished Dame Elizabeth Filkin, that her report’s exhortations on the risks of police officers and journalists talking to each other privately, confidentially and unofficially were absurd: “Late-night carousing, long sessions, yet another bottle of wine at lunch – these are all long-standing media tactics to get you to spill the beans. Avoid.”

Any contact I may have had with Britain’s intelligence and defence services I would deny and you can consider any effusions on this matter as complete fiction. But Daniel Craig and Angelina Jolie they are certainly not. Serious and dedicated to preserving everything good about the British way of liberty, democracy, culture and fairness for the greatest number has been my perception of what motivates those with whom I may or may not have had contact.

If their operations are out of proportion and diminish the rights they are employed to protect that is where I and my fellow journalists come in. The poet and dramatist Friedrich Schiller once said: “It is wise to disclose what cannot be concealed.” When we are denied the chance to meet, discuss and negotiate on our own terms, the result is caricature, ignorance, and a level of misunderstanding that will generate negligence on a grand scale; then lives will not be saved and media freedom will be lost.