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Mark Hirst argues that the body responsible for censoring news covering national security matters is unnecessary due to uncensored internet activity

It grew out of a "mutual concern" between senior newspapermen and civil servants in October 1912 worried that the press may inadvertently give away state secrets which would be useful to the then German naval build up. But now, 95 years later the system of official censorship operated by the UK Government, in cahoots with senior print and broadcast executives and administered under the innocuously sounding Defence, Press and Broadcasting Advisory Committee (DPBAC) is increasingly seeing its role undermined by ever expanding internet activity.  

Many are beginning to ponder whether the days of the quasi-official British censor are soon to be brought to a close by the Internet.  Others worry that the UK will follow China's lead to stifle free expression and information flow over the World Wide Web by censoring personal web pages and blogs aided and abetted by giant US corporations like Yahoo, Microsoft and Google. Just this month this technological axis of imperialism and seventeen other major Internet providers signed up to a new, somewhat perversely entitled “self-discipline pact” which, according to Reporters Without Borders demands service providers operating in China "monitor and manage comments" as well as delete "illegal and bad information." 

Such a pact is not yet imminent here, but then we have a far more traditional body in DPBAC which acts as gatekeeper and effective censor.

No other nation on earth, not even the most paranoid closed states like North Korea, have a system of censorship like that operated by DPBAC in the UK. DPBAC vehemently deny that their role amounts to official censorship, but clearly that’s its intention and ultimately its lasting effect. The system, which operates five standing DA-Notices (Defence Advisory Notices), known up until 1993 as D-Notices, gives supposedly non-binding general advice to editors on what should or should not be published or transmitted. The Committee, which meets just twice a year, is chaired by the Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Defence and he is joined by four members representing Government departments, one each from the Home Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Cabinet Office. Thirteen representatives from the "mainstream" media are also nominated and the Committee's work is funded by the Ministry of Defence, although the MoD stress that the DPBAC is entirely independent of them. 

The Secretary of DPBAC, a post which has always been filled by a senior retired Military officer, is responsible for offering advice to journalists and Editors on a day-to-day basis and he reports to the committee every six months on the guidance that has been sought and offered. The system is designed, its proponents claim, to uphold the integrity of that ambulatory concept known as national security. "It's like Humpty Dumpty's 'It means just what I choose it to mean'," says Rear Admiral Nick Wilkinson, the former Secretary of DPBAC, "but in practice it [national security] is indeed quite hard to define concisely." The very nature of what constitutes a national security issue or story has been particularly stretched in recent years following the 11th September attacks and subsequent invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and that undoubtedly has led to greater restrictions imposed on publishers and broadcasters.  

The Blair Government's acquiescence to pre-emptive military action which had its roots in the Bush Government's *"National Security Strategy of the United States of America"* published in September 2002 demonstrates clearly that what constitutes national security may not necessarily be the same as what constitutes the wider public interest and therefore legitimate journalistic investigation and analysis. Maintaining and upholding *national security * certainly does not require a sound moral dimension to it as the events which led to the death of weapons inspector David Kelly clearly demonstrated. So why then would journalists simply accept what is, according to DPBACs own propaganda, a purely voluntary system of guidance?

One factor is the myth, or set of myths that continue to surround the DA Notice system. Many journalists are simply unaware of how the system actually operates or how far reaching, or not as the case is, the DPBACs real powers are.  Of those journalists who are aware, some fear, not without foundation, for their future career prospects should they opt to stand up and defend the integrity and substance of their story. Other, more establishment journalists are regrettably inclined simply to accept DA Notice guidance without much of a quibble or fight.  

It should come as no surprise to learn that the BBC for example has been particularly fervent in its application and interpretation of issues and stories related to national security. It has worked closely with the Security Service for decades ensuring that both in terms of content and personnel the organisation, the world's largest broadcasting corporation, never deviates from the official line when it comes to dealing with issues covering national security. Until relatively recently BBC staff were routinely required to sign the Official Secrets Act before being offered a permanent contract and MI5 maintained a full-time office at Broadcasting House to vet staff, rubber stamping the files of potential subversives with, somewhat bizarrely, green Christmas trees. The BBC's Middle East Editor, Jeremy Bowen recounted the moment when, as a 24-year-old trainee the Official Secrets Act form was laid out for him to sign. "I hesitated for about half a second and then put my name to it.” Bowen said, "We must have been a conformist bunch, all ambitious, focussed on the careers that were going to emerge from our places on one of the BBC's elite training courses… even to my innocent mind it was a strange thing for journalists to do." The BBC remains tight lipped over the extent of present day Security Service involvement in the journalistic activity of its staff.  

Of course such levels of close working, involving the vetting of staff and effective gagging clauses, incorporated in the OSA does not mean that the Corporation is incapable of making ground breaking, investigative and critical programmes of the Government of the day. But equally such interference cannot be conducive to independent journalism and leaves the BBC open to criticism that it can, at least on occasion, act as little more than an official mouthpiece for certain Government departments. Following the Hutton Inquiry rigorous self-censorship is now very evident in the BBC fuelled by hypersensitive corporation lawyers.  

Last year I asked for details on the number of official DA notices issued by DPBAC. I asked for the information under the Freedom of Information Act, given the committee are funded directly by the taxpayer, only to receive a response some weeks later that stated, "The DPBAC is neither subject to the UK Freedom of Information Act 2000, nor to its Scottish equivalent." However they did, to their credit, disclose some of the figures. Since 1993, according to their own records, there have been 41 formal DA notices issued by DPBACs Secretary. There was however an intriguing addition in the covering email that suggests a far greater level of censorship is operating than the formal notice tally suggests. "The Secretary," responded Air Vice Marshall Andrew Vallance, strangely referring to himself in the third person, "also offers oral advice to journalists, editors and officials.  Records of the oral advice offered commenced in October 2005, and thus far number 191.  However, for reasons of confidentiality I am not at liberty to give further details of this." 

So whilst there has been six official DA notices issued since October 2005 over the same period there have been more than 30 times as many pieces of so-called "oral advice" issued to journalists and Editors. DPBAC is not subject to independent audit nor is it accountable to any close public scrutiny yet this same group of people, which the former Secretary of DPBAC described as "gossipy and full of testosterone" and made up of predominantly white, middle-class males is effectively responsible for deciding which stories related to issues of national security reach the public. How can the public have confidence in such a body which meets so infrequently, is accountable only to itself, although funded directly from the public purse, to determine what is or is not in our best interests to know? 

Things are changing however. The World Wide Web offers a window on the world which even the Internet’s original creators could not have imagined when they were devising ways of how to improve, somewhat ironically, the US defence department information sharing capability. For the time being the Internet remains, with the notable exception of China, where "normal service has been temporarily suspended", a vehicle for free and frank expression of opinion. It is a place where genuine newsworthy, investigative stories can and do appear and where mainstream broadcasting and publishing executives have historically feared to tread, for either commercial reasons or for reasons ultimately related to their own worldly view, a view clearly shared and shaped by the establishment committee, the DPBAC, of which they are members.  

The supreme device used by DPBAC often trotted out to journalists who are seriously thinking about ignoring the DA Notice Guidance and who have some gem of sensitive information they wish to disclose, is that publication would place at risk the lives of British citizens, usually agents of the Security Service. It’s the DPBAC equivalent of “Danger, Bull in Field” and has proved an effective, if disingenuous deterrent for years. How can journalists challenge such a powerful presumption and justify running such an unquantifiable risk to their editors? However without the most rigorous, robust and continuous monitoring of the Security Service and other agencies “responsible” for maintaining national security then we run the far greater risk of repeating the catastrophic mistakes which have been so evident in recent years and which have demonstrably cost lives both here and overseas. The claim by DPBAC and the Government that such potential stories will place lives at risk has become a hollow one and had there been far greater scrutiny of the intelligence sources, the Security Service and of those overseeing our national security interests in the run up to Iraq and indeed prior to 11th September, then perhaps we would not be facing the very real threat to life we see today, not just in the UK but globally.  

What is needed is greater access to and publication of uncensored material because the self appointed guardians of our national security have proven they cannot be trusted to determine what is genuinely in the public interest. On the most popular Internet video website YouTube personal views are exchanged, some authoritative although most are not. In general these views are laid bare without censor and oblivious to the potential impact on national security. In war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan the wide range of material on offer through YouTube gives an impression of these conflicts which no mainstream media organisation could ever achieve, or more importantly be allowed to broadcast. These videos and blogs demonstrate, in all its inglorious folly, the futility of the Government’s foreign policy objectives initiated, we were told, to enhance our national security. Whatever value the notion of national security once held the reality of Blair’s illegal and dangerous adventurism abroad has led to the concept being irreversibly soiled. DPBAC is slowly wakening up to the reality of the information available through the Web and they are already looking at ways to extend their censoring influence here. 

However it appears those attempts have ran into difficulty after it became clear in recent talks with the Secretary General of the UK Internet Service Providers Association that “present circumstances” made it “impractical to offer general advice on the public disclosure of national security information”. However DPBAC will continue to offer individual advice to ISPs on a so-called “notice and take down basis.” In democracies it is vital that we have a free and independent press, free to investigate and if necessary challenge outdated concepts of what constitutes national security, particularly given the very differing views that exist about what that concept really means. It cannot be healthy for our democracy to have that concept defined and determined by a small gossipy, testosterone-loaded group of unaccountable middle and upper class white males.  

Editors and journalists who pride themselves on maintaining the highest standards of integrity and a determination to tell a story as accurately as possible must make a stand and without being utterly reckless challenge the current DA Notice system by making rational, journalistic decisions on what is in the public interest to disclose, regardless of how badly that reflects on the current Government and some of its more shadowy agencies.   

Mark Hirst is a member of the National Union of Journalists and a former Government Press Officer and has previously lectured on the role of the Security Service and the subject of censorship in the media, in both Scotland and Ireland.

 
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