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Last Updated: 27 Aug 2015

Summary of Questions

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About System

What are the benefits of the DSMA-Notice system?

  • DSMA-Notices are guidelines for editors, broadcasters, authors and publishers, agreed jointly by representatives of the media and government departments directly concerned with national security, about the type of information which should be protected for national security reasons.
  • The DSMA-Notice Secretary is always available to the media and government to help resolve disagreement about what should be disclosed and to find a mutually acceptable outcome.
  • Negotiation through the DSMA-Notice Secretary normally provides an acceptable solution, and is quicker and cheaper than legal recourse.

Do the media have to use the DSMA-Notice system?

  • No, it is voluntary. Even if the media seek the advice of the DSMA-Notice Secretary they are under no obligation to accept this advice, or to accede to his requests or proposals. The final decision on publishing or broadcasting something material rests with the editor.

What powers do the DSMA-Notice Secretary/Committee have?

  • None, except those of argument and persuasion.

Why does the media follow a voluntary code; surely it wants to publish or broadcast stories in full?

  • Editors want to publish or broadcast their story, but not unwittingly to put lives at risk or compromise national security. They will usually not publish or broadcast details which they are persuaded might bring risks of this kind. The value of the DSMA-Notices is that they set guidelines, agreed by the media and government, for those areas in which the risks are most likely to arise.

If an editor does publish/broadcast something which is damaging to national security, or threatens to do so, what does the DSMA-Notice system do about it?

  • When a newspaper or broadcast channel inadvertently releases information which might damage national security, the Secretary may contact the editor to point this out and offer advice on how further inadvertent damage might be avoided. If the release of information is intentional, no further action is taken by the DSMA-Notice Secretary. If a government department is sufficiently concerned, they may initiate police and/or legal action, but this is not at the behest, or with the involvement in any other way, of the DSMA-Notice Secretary or Committee.

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?

  • Legal action can be costly and time-consuming, often creates adverse publicity, and there is no guarantee that the judge will uphold the government's case. It can be a very cumbersome mechanism if the government is just seeking the removal of a sensitive point of detail, such as an agents' name. Injunctions tend to stop a story completely, which is often not the government's intent.

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

  • This very dated phrase sounds dramatic, but it is no longer what actually happens! DSMA-Notices are not issued for particular incidents. The are five standing DSMA-Notices which the DSMA-Notice Secretary might on occasion draw to an editor's’ attention.

Is the DSMA-Notice system a form of censorship?

  • No, by definition a voluntary system cannot be censorship. DSMA-Notices are guidance for the media in self-regulation. Publication is still a matter of judgement for editors who are well used to regulating content on a wide range of matters, including when e.g. harm to individuals, financial loss or an offence to public taste may result.

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

  • A news room may contact the DSMA-Notice Secretary with information that they intend to publish or broadcast a story on matters covered by the DSMA-Notices, with a request for more specific advice on the sensitivity of certain details.
  • Officials may get in touch with the DSMA-Notice Secretary to raise a concern - e.g. an Intelligence Agency might become aware that a TV company has been filming activities that might compromise the work or safety of their agents.
  • The DSMA-Notice Secretary might, for example, learn that a book about the SAS is to be published.
  • When important national security issues emerge, bringing a heightened risk that the media might inadvertently publish or broadcast information which could damage national security, the Secretary writes to all UK editors alerting them to the risks and asking them to consider seeking his advice before releasing sensitive details.
  • When a newspaper or broadcast channel inadvertently releases information which might damage national security, the Secretary may contact the editor to point this out and offer advice on how further inadvertent damage might be avoided.

What action does the Secretary take?

  • After seeking advice from the government department concerned, the DSMA-Notice Secretary advises the media about information which could damage national security. Examples might include details about a current or planned operation or which could endanger the life or effectiveness of an agent.
  • He might suggest ways of avoiding such damage, e.g. concealing identities 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 real damage.

Might ‘damage’ to national security be claimed to mask wider instances of official embarrassment?

  • Political or official embarrassment are not valid grounds under the five standing DSMA-Notices for advising against public disclosure of information.

Must the Secretary accept the official position on damage to national security?

  • No, the Secretary has to be persuaded of the need for secrecy, within the scope of the guidelines set out by the DSMA-Notices; he will also consider whether the facts are already widely in the public domain.

If a book or article or programme has been cleared through the DSMA-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 DSMA-Notice code.

If a fact has been published, 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 guidance in DSMA-Notice 5 is that sensitive information which has already ‘been widely disclosed or discussed’ should not be withheld. However, judgements about what is ‘in the public domain’ are generally subjective. A statement by a writer with no authority in an obscure publication, or even on a hard-to-find website, does not have the readership or authority of a major British newspaper, publisher or reputable author. Each case therefore has to be assessed on its merits.

Does the DSMA-Notice system apply to the Internet?

  • It can do, but, because of the international nature of the net, matters published on foreign websites, as with foreign newspapers, are beyond the influence of the DSMA-Notice system. The status of UK internet service providers as ‘publishers’ is also still unclear. The Defence and Security Media Advisory Committee has several experts in digital media, and its secretariat has established direct contact with a number of online news outlets. Google provided a dedicated digital member on the DSMA Committee, but withdrew after the disclosures made by the NSA fugitive Edward Snowden. The DSMA Committee is nevertheless keen to strengthen its outreach to digital and social media.

Does the growing importance of digital and social media mean that the DSMA-Notice System is no longer operable?

  • The DSMA-Notices are voluntary guidelines, and the diversity of the British media (including some small outlets which have never followed the DSMA-Notice guidance), mean they have never been wholly effective. The digital and social media certainly have produced important new challenges to which there is no obvious answer. Nevertheless, the relative obscurity and unknown credibility of many outlets means that information they publish will also in many cases be little seen or believed. The mainstream media, which is generally more committed to the DSMA-Notice system, is meanwhile increasing its digital presence and readership and enjoys a greater degree of trust and visibility.
  • Ultimately, the system can still work to prevent putting lives in danger which gives it strong, even if still unquantifiable and patchy value.

What is ‘National Security’?

  • It is a phrase widely used in legislation, but there is in fact no definition. As far as the DSMA-Notices are concerned, and in the absence of a definition of National Security, the Committee is also concerned with the scale of threat; the threat must involve ‘grave danger to the State and/or individuals’. The relative scale of the threat is the context in which DSMA-Notices, often covering some quite precise aspects of National Security, should be considered.

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

  • As a rule, books are only considered if the publisher/author or the Department concerned asks for advice from the DSMA-Notice Secretary. Such requests have grown steadily and have been running at about one per month. This trend is expected to continue, especially now that the (Book) Publishers' Association is represented on the DSMA Committee.

When does a government department seek police/legal action against an editor or author?

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

What happens if information provided by the media to the Secretary suggests a breach of 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). The Secretary alerts the media to any material which he thinks might be in breach of an injunction or which might be an offence under the Official Secrets Act, and may advise consulting the Treasury Solicitor for expert legal advice.

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

  • A survey of 15 countries in 2010 found that none had comparable arrangements to provide guidance to the media to prevent inadvertent disclosure of information that might put at risk the safety of those involved in military or intelligence operations, or lead to attacks that would damage the critical national infrastructure or endanger lives. Most countries do share with the UK some form of official secrets act or acts, and a professional journalist code of conduct.

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 national culture and law. The UK has tended to prefer voluntary agreements over mandatory arrangements. The DSMA-Notice System has been reviewed and changes have been recommended, but the principle of a voluntary system based on mutually agreed guidelines is still seen as appropriate by the media and government alike. It is far from a guarantee that sensitive national security information will be protected, but 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. These are judgements which, in a wider context, the media are very used to making.

What were the recommendations of the DPBAC and DA-Notice Review?

  • The Report of the Independent Review recommended that the purpose of the system should remain that of preventing inadvertent 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 or endanger lives.
  • The Review recommended: a restructuring of the leadership of the Committee and broader membership to include the intelligence agencies and digital media; the renaming of the Committee to better reflect its purpose; more active promotion of the system to the media and government departments; a transfer of stewardship to the National Security Council in the Cabinet Office to be considered once other changes have been implemented; better accountability of the Secretariat; the renaming of the DA-Notices which should also be rewritten in more understandable terms while retaining their existing ambit; and a more equitable split of costs between MOD, the Home Office and FCO.
  • Most of the recommendations were accepted in full or in part. However, the government did not accept the appointment of an independent chair of the Committee, as it considered that this might have expanded the role of the Committee from purely advisory to that of an arbitration body. The government meets the costs of the Committee and its system, and remains responsible for the security matters on which the DPBAC offers advice.

About the Defence and Security Media Advisory Committee

How are the five officials on the Committee chosen?

  • They are ex-officio posts. The Chairman, for mainly historical reasons, was until 2015 the Permanent Under Secretary of the Ministry of Defence. However, as a result of the Independent Review of the Defence Advisory Notice System and the Defence Press and Broadcasting Advisory Committee in May 2015 the Chairmanship was handed over to the Director General Security Policy 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 DSMA Committee 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 DSMA Committee Vice-Chairman.

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

  • The media representatives form a substantial majority of an independent Committee, which is not responsible to any political, departmental or official organisation. The media representatives respond to official initiatives, but also put forward their own - for example, in suggesting the recent revision of the DSMA-Notices. Discussion by media and official representatives can be full and frank, and decisions are by mutual agreement.

About the DSMA-Notice Secretary

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

  • For convenience, the DSMA-Notice Secretary is paid as a temporary civil servant, and accommodated and administratively supported by the Ministry of Defence. But he works only for the Committee and is required to be independent and even-handed in his dealings with the media and officials. He has such access to official information as is necessary to make informed judgements in interpreting the DSMA-Notices for the benefit of media and officials alike. He is likewise 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?

  • Familiarity with the workings of government and the Armed Forces, with some knowledge of the secret intelligence and security agencies and of working with the media; sufficient stature to deal easily with officials and media at any level; good negotiating skills; and no past or present conflicts of interest with the areas of DSMA-Notice interest. The current Secretary is a retired RAF Air-Vice Marshal.

Does the DSMA-Notice Secretary work alone?

  • He is supported by two part-time Deputy Secretaries and a part-time PA.

How is the DSMA-Notice system funded?

  • The salaries and running costs amount to approximately £250,000 per annum and are funded by the Ministry of Defence. The government accepted there was merit in the recommendation of the Independent DPBAC Review that the costs should be spread more equitably across government departments, but judged that the administrative burden of doing so would be disproportionate to the costs involved.

Does the DSMA Committee deal with complaints about media activity?

  • Only if directly relevant to DSMA-Notice guidelines on endangering National Security. Otherwise, complaints should be addressed to The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) (www.ipso.co.uk).