D for discretion: Can the modern media keep a secret?

Newspaper headlines on Bob Quick blunder Newspaper chiefs reached a gentleman's agreement over Bob Quick's blunder

When the UK government wants to prevent the media from reporting something for national security reasons it issues what used to be known as a D-Notice.

Although they are now called Defence Advisory (DA) Notices the mainstream news organisations hardly ever ignore them.

But can this system still work in the age of citizen journalism when the media is so fragmented?

Twice a year, over tea and biscuits at the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall, senior editors sit down with senior civil servants to discuss what should be kept secret in the military, intelligence and counter-terrorism worlds.

Originally known as the D-Notice Committee, it has been in existence for nearly a century.

At first it was a forum for newspaper proprietors and military men only; now even internet giant Google has a seat on this very British institution.

"It's entirely voluntary," explains Bob Satchwell from the Society of Editors - one of the media bodies to sit on the committee.

"I don't think it's self-censorship. It's self-restraint."

Carrier pigeons

But when the first meeting of the committee took place in 1912, the newspapers were slightly embarrassed by their role in this venture.


  • Sky News
  • The Financial Times
  • Jane's News and Analysis
  • The Belfast Telegraph
  • Daily Mail
  • Press Association
  • ITN
  • The Scotsman
  • ITV
  • News International Newspapers Ltd
  • BBC
  • Western Morning News
  • Society of Editors
  • Little Brown Book Group
  • Google
  • Periodical Publishers Association

"It was all kept very hush-hush," says Nicholas Wilkinson, the official historian of the D-Notice Committee and a former secretary of it.

"The press side didn't want the public to know they were co-operating with the government in a kind of voluntary self-censorship.

"The government, likewise, was very sensitive not to be seen to be censoring the press."

There were certainly D-Notices on some rather curious things back then.

For example, journalists were not supposed to make any mention of Rasputin and his relationship with "the highest personage in Russia".

And during World War I, they were asked not to refer to the existence of the government's carrier pigeon service for fear it would give the enemy useful information.

Nowadays the D-Notice Committee is called the Defence Advisory Notice System to stress that it does not involve enforced censorship of the media.

Gentlemen's agreement

Indeed, with 16 representatives on the committee to the government's five, the media outnumber the civil service by more than three to one.

"There isn't any real pressure I can apply to journalists," says Air Vice-Marshal Andrew Vallance, the committee's current secretary.

"All I can try to do is to convince them of the consequences if they publish or broadcast certain information which might damage national security."

Julian Assange Julian Assange agreed to some material being blanked out

He points to a spring day in 2009 when Bob Quick, the then assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, inadvertently showed secret counter-terrorism documents to the world's press as he entered 10 Downing Street.

The media were obviously eager to carry the story of the clumsy copper.

So, as fast as he could, Andrew Vallance had to broker a gentlemen's agreement with journalists: "The photograph with the sensitive details pixelated out - fine.

"That was just embarrassment, but the details on the document - no."

Rise of Wikileaks

On that occasion, media chiefs agreed and planned counter-terrorism raids were brought forward while the media blackout lasted.

In theory, the media could choose to ignore the secretary but in reality that rarely happens.

The key for the secretary is to invoke the system only if it's really necessary - though, as we hear in our programme, journalists don't always agree on the secretary's judgement calls about what compromises national security.


  • Military Operations, Plans & Capabilities
  • Nuclear and Non-Nuclear Weapons and Equipment
  • Ciphers and Secure Communications
  • Sensitive Installations and Home Addresses
  • United Kingdom Security & Intelligence Special Services

Of course, the modern media no longer observe neat national boundaries like they did in 1912.

So critics of the Defence Advisory Notice System argue it is now just a relic of the past.

For Mark Stephens, the media lawyer, the committee is a cosy establishment club.

"The journalists may profess they don't want blood on their hands - one has the fear they'd perhaps like a CBE on their chest."

And he does not think the system can cope with the changing media landscape.

"It won't be long before we see some blogger, or some web activist, come into possession of real secrets which puts people's lives in danger and they just publish and be damned."

Mark Stephens is the former lawyer to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and, of course, some would argue that is exactly what his website has done.

DA-Notice committee The DA-notice committee has 16 representatives from media organisations

When Mr Assange first published his Afghanistan war logs he did not black out any sensitive details - something which Amnesty International later said could have put the lives of intelligence sources at risk.

Later Wikileaks revelations, though, were produced in much closer conjunction with traditional newspapers like the Guardian and the New York Times and they had their own concerns about the ethics of the project.

"Julian Assange certainly took a pretty scorched earth view initially," says Ian Katz, deputy editor of the Guardian.

"But over the course of the collaboration with him, he changed his position so that - in the end - he was very keen on the idea that we would redact all the material and that Wikileaks would only publish files that we'd already sanitised or made safe."

Twitter secrets?

The advent of social networking websites means it is increasingly hard to achieve a complete news blackout on anything - as the recent row over Twitter and privacy "super-injunctions" showed.

Even the most top secret of operations are vulnerable.

"A huge window-shaking bang here in Abbottabad," tweeted one resident of a Pakistani town as he unwittingly commentated on the raid by US Navy Seals to kill Osama Bin Laden.

So does the Ministry of Defence worry about the Twitter effect on state secrets?

"Of course once something has gone viral and it's everywhere it's no longer a secret," says the MoD's most senior civil servant, Ursula Brennan.

"But not everyone is on Twitter. The vast bulk of people still don't actually see that information until it gets disseminated by one of the mainstream newspapers or broadcasters."

The media members of the Defence Advisory Notice System seem fairly relaxed too about the changing news environment.

The last word goes to Simon Bucks, the lead media representative on the committee and a senior editor at Sky News: "If there came a day when there was so much news on Twitter which we wanted to publish and which we were still being asked to suppress, then that would be a real problem. But right now I still feel comfortable with the system. It's the best of the bad options."

D for Discretion airs on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday, 23 August at 09:00 BST and again at 21:30.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    Hi Naomi,Interesting programme. However! Now the Neuwz of the Worrrld is ded. Dooow wee still need to speeeeak inn this affected mannna? It reeealy getts in the wayy of th' meszzadjj. Please stop!

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    I was very much looking forward to this programme and was appalled by it. Naomi Grimley's patronising, girly delivery of a script written in the manner of Janet and John had me gritting my teeth and cringing at each breathy pronouncement. She completely got in the way of what should have been an informative, thought-provoking programme, showcasing the BBC's own role. Please, God, no more Naomi.

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    The D (A) - Notice system programme this morning has to rate as the worst broadcast (to an adult audience) I have ever heard. The presenter, Naomi Grimley, was the most patronizing, condescending deliverer of drivel. If ever a subject - which gets to the heart of the BBC's own status - needed a robust, informative and balanced delivery, this was it. She must be a daughter of somebody in the BBC.

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    Blimey, don't we all love a conspiracy theory?

    People are writing as if the media has a duty to reveal all truths to us. Wrong. Their objective is to make money. The media won't observe trivial DA notices. Scandal sells.

    But, some secrets are literally matters life and death and MUST be withheld. That is when DA notices are vital.

    Who objects to the management of the Bob Quick fiasco?

  • rate this

    Comment number 136.

    The withholding of information for national security will always be a debatable issue, particularly for situations that are difficult to justify.

    That said, the hypocrisy of what is released and suggested is staggering e.g.: Cameron's proposed ban on social media after criticising Middle East regimes for the same thing.


  • rate this

    Comment number 135.

    As Sir Humphrey once pointed out, the Official Secrets Act is there to protect officials, not secrets.

  • rate this

    Comment number 134.

    The BBC should be doing more to establish their credibility in news reporting as in my view they have never taken a stand against their traditional role of state propaganda outlet, especially after 'embedded journalists'. It reflects poorly that it was down to wikileaks to be the first in years to shed light on political realities with out spin. The establishment are embedded in news as I see it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 133.

    Its worrying and telling about our modern conformist culture, so many comments seem to advocate the acquiescence of our hard won rights to know whats done in our name for the illusion of safety. Authorities wish to plicate our fear that've manufactured through draconian policy because of their own hubris about a paternalistic state but what precedent they set for future authorities? slippery slope

  • rate this

    Comment number 132.

    Its been the constant since the inception of broadcasting, the press Collusion with the state is endemic, only to the detriment of our democracy. The state has never deserved our unquestioning trust or obeisance and should be challenged by a unfettered press. One of our biggest challenges for society will be avoiding an orwellian police state controlled by fear. The groundwork is already laid.

  • rate this

    Comment number 131.

    We must focus on protecting our armed forces and info' about their movements, & security within UK to protect us ALL from terrorism or increasing anarchy in all it's forms, which are related, historically.

    All law-abiding citizens in UK are at risk from idiots who are cowards/ too brain-washed to deal with life, and seek dead-end refuge from those who destroy your children, but not their own.

  • rate this

    Comment number 130.

    Unfortunately the media has been over run by louts and too many people think they're more important than the country they live in.

    National security is still paramount and those who disagree are showing a very stupid attitude indeed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 129.

    When is "National Security" actually "National"security, and when is it personal security for those who make decisions which aren't actually in the national (ie everyone in the nations) interest, but follow their own agenda. There is a fine line and it seems to be crossed ever more frequently by the sociopaths in government and business who falsely claim to have our best interests at heart...

  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

    125 blueberry democracys is just an illussion

  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    Just to say that in the attack on the Britich Council the media inc the BBC widely reported, WHILE THE ATTACK WAS CONTINUING, reported that Britich Council staff were thought to be hiding in a safe room in the building. Now the Taliban listen to BBC broadcasts I am sure and so I hope those holed up and in mortal danger appreciated the BBC possibly informing their attackers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 126.

    I've heard it said that this occurs to protect the public. From what valid, timely & accurate information? Do you not think the public tires of spin, does not recognize spin, grows resentful of spin?
    If you aspire to a democratic state, the rule should be tell the truth, let the public know, let the public express its approval or disapproval, AND THEN LISTEN TO THE PEOPLE WHO ELECTED YOU.

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    Wiki leaks has shown desperate hunger for information - factual, timely, & accurate. In my opinion, if the item is newsworthy, it should be reported. What is it that the elites are doing that the media must keep hush-hush? If you don't want the public to know, why not IF NOT BECAUSE THE PUBLIC WOULD DISAPPROVE? Is public disapproval not important in a democracy?

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    6 Hours ago
    #50. Seeing as Harry was in Afghanistan not Iraq ............................ Harry & his men were no more at risk because of him than they would have been anyway
    It breaks my heart, but on this occasion Peter, I have to
    agree with you

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    No, far too much of the media focus on sensationalism style reporting, and high need to push it out over all forms of communication. Or guidelines need to be strictly enforced with a publicly recornised body, providing a duty to protect public, with ability to enuse serious consequences apply if broken, these including dismisal of staff, alongside of fines to companies found in breach of duty.

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    Can we get this discussion back on-track and talk about the rights and wrongs of the British government keeping secrets from the British public? If it protects the lives of British service personnel - and the interests of the country - I'm all for it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    If the Sun had been around in the 1940's then it might have run headlines like 'gay maths boffins leads brit team that breaks key jerry code.' And that would have not been a good thing to reveal whilst the war was still on.


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