Defence and Security Media Advisory

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On 30 July 2015, the Defence and Security Media Advisory (DSMA) Notice System replaced the Defence, Press and Broadcasting Advisory Committee (DPBAC) DA-Notice System following a review sponsored by the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defence (MoD).[1][2]

The result of the review? According to The Guardian, an almost identical system but a change of name: DA-Notices become DSMA (Defence and Security Media Advisory) Notices. Nothing, it seems, works quite so well as a British fudge that allows the press to keep its freedom while volunteering to protect national security. (This article was amended on 4 August 2015 to make clear that The Guardian did not consult the DA-Notice secretary before publishing the first of its Snowden leaks, but did for all subsequent stories.)[3]

Review team

The review team began its work in June 2014: chaired by Professor Anthony Forster, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Essex, team members were Peter Preston, former editor of The Guardian, Peter Wright, Editor Emeritus at Associated Newspapers, and Martin Fuller, a former senior civil servant. The team’s task was to provide an independent view, without any preconceptions, on the issues set out in the remit. The review invited views from all members of the DPBAC, government and the media, who were approached directly, and from interested parties more widely, through an announcement placed on the DPBAC website.

Perceived need for change

Challenge to the existence of the system comes from a variety of sources: the impact of new digital media - unregulated, often offshore, fluid and easily accessed - as first shown in 2010 by the Wikileaks release, orchestrated by Julian Assange, of Iraq and Afghan war intelligence; and then, three years later by the Edward Snowden case. The Snowden leaks of American intelligence strategies and practices, in particular, seemed to demonstrate the difficulty of exercising any kind of restraint through the DA-Notice system: Snowden had passed on a great deal of sensitive material to news outlets in London, Washington and Hamburg. All operated in different legal and regulatory environments, but the Internet has in effect created a single global public domain. The ease with which new media outlets can be established, and accessed by the public, presents an obvious challenge to the more traditional print and broadcast media. They have often responded by creating a powerful digital presence themselves, but it remains the case that the public now have many more options for obtaining information of variable quality and trustworthiness.

The Snowden case presented these challenges in stark relief. Some of the material gathered by The Guardian (via its New York office) related to GCHQ and was thus of interest to the UK media. Before publication, The Guardian sought information from the US Administration both about the accuracy of the material and its potential damage to national security, and was able to agree a number of changes - including the names of individuals at risk - to what would otherwise have been published. The Washington Post adopted the same approach. The US administration and its agencies did not welcome the revelations, but they felt constitutionally obliged to co-operate, just as the print media felt morally obliged to avoid putting lives at risk. In the UK, however, The Guardian felt inhibited from approaching government sources, initially because of a fear that government would seek an injunction against publication in its entirety - even though the same stories, duly reviewed in Washington, could and would be published in the US and available in the UK. After The Guardian published its initial tranche of material in the UK, some engagement with government developed, both with the DPBAC Secretariat and with GCHQ.

Contact with the media

Over the last 30 years the intelligence and security agencies in the UK have moved from an almost total absence of public profile and limited contact with the media, to a position today where their existence is avowed, they recruit through a public process and their heads are named and appear publicly. They have also provided briefing sessions for parliamentarians and have a range of contacts with the media. There are, though, still significant differences between the UK departments and agencies concerned in their relations with the media.

a. The MoD has a large press office with extensive media contacts, but is very restrained in what it will say about Special Forces (SF). Special Forces are probably the least willing of all the agencies to engage with the media (in spite of a certain amount of leaking and self-publicity by ex-SF members) and tend to stick to the formula of ‘neither confirm nor deny’ any information related to SF. This can make it quite difficult for the media to judge the veracity of some of the stories that are put to them or to weigh the security implications.
b. MI5 has three officers, who are authorised to speak to representatives of the corporate media, which in practice means a number of journalists at national newspapers and broadcasters.
c. MI6 employ two government press officers on the same basis.
d. GCHQ has operated a press office, which supports its media communications strategy generally, for a number of years; after Snowden, the agency appointed a senior serving officer to oversee the agency’s response to the media leaks.

All the agencies have direct contacts with the media, to a greater or lesser extent, but they also use the DPBAC and its Secretariat to field enquiries about intelligence and security matters on their behalf and to act as an intermediary between themselves and the media where they have not established their own relationships of trust. They also use the DPBAC on those occasions when general advice needs to be circulated to the media.

Conclusions of the review

The review concluded 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 and/or endanger lives. Any extension to the remit would not command support of the media and would involve powers antithetical to a voluntary system of self regulation.

It concluded that there is clear advantage in widening the membership to include representation from the intelligence and security agencies and some elements of the new digital media. A more logical home for the DPBAC and DA-Notice system may be under the National Security Council in the Cabinet Office, as the cross-government home for national security. The implications of a possible move to the Cabinet Office, and the timing of such a move, should be explored within the Committee. Whilst trust and confidence is fragile, and an overhaul of the Committee and its structures is the priority, a move of departmental home would be a step too far at this time.

Government response

David Cameron's majority Conservative government agreed to all except one of the review's recommendations: a split of costs between MoD, the Home Office and the FCO:

Whilst we see the merit in moving to a position whereby the costs of the DPBAC and Secretariat are shared by each of the Departments with a key stake in them, we consider that the administrative burden of implementing this recommendation would be disproportionate to the small sums involved and therefore agree that the costs should continue to fall to one department and that this should remain the MoD.

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