by Kim Sengupta
MPs seek to censor the media
Britain’s security agencies and police would be given unprecedented and legally binding powers to ban the media from reporting matters of national security, under proposals being discussed in Whitehall.
The Intelligence and Security Committee, the parliamentary watchdog of the intelligence and security agencies which has a cross-party membership from both Houses, wants to press ministers to introduce legislation that would prevent news outlets from reporting stories deemed by the Government to be against the interests of national security.
The ISC is to recommend in its next report, out at the end of the year, that a commission be set up to look into its plans, according to senior Whitehall sources.
The ISC holds huge clout within Whitehall. It receives secret briefings from MI5, MI6 and GCHQ and is highly influential in forming government policy. Kim Howells, a respected former Foreign Office minister, was recently appointed its chairman. Under the existing voluntary code of conduct, known as the DA-Notice system, the Government can request that the media does not report a story. However, the committee’s members are particularly worried about leaks, which, they believe, could derail investigations and the reporting of which needs to be banned by legislation.
Civil liberties groups say these restrictions would be “very dangerous” and “damaging for public accountability”. They also point out that censoring journalists when the leaks come from officials is unjustified.
But the committee, in its last annual report, has already signalled its intention to press for changes. It states: “The current system for handling national security information through DA-Notices and the [intelligence and security] Agencies’ relationship with the media more generally, is not working as effectively as it might and this is putting lives at risk.” According to senior Whitehall sources the ISC is likely to advocate tighter controls on the DA-Notice system – formerly known as D-Notice – which operates in co-operation and consultation between the Government and the media.
The ISC report said the DA-Notice system “provides advice and guidance to the media about defence and counter-terrorism information, whilst the system is voluntary, has no legal authority, and the final responsibility for deciding whether or not to publish rests solely with the editor or publisher concerned. The system has been effective in the past. However, the Cabinet Secretary told us … this is no longer the case: ‘I think we have problems now.'”
The human rights lawyer Louise Christian said: “This would be a very dangerous development. We need media scrutiny for public accountability. We can see this from the example, for instance, of the PhD student in Nottingham who was banged up for six days without charge because he downloaded something from the internet for his thesis. The only reason this came to light was because of the media attention to the case.”
DA-Notice: a gagging by consent
The D-Notice system was set up in 1912 when the War Office (the Ministry of Defence in its previous incarnation) began issuing censorship orders to newspapers on stories involving national security.
In 1993 it became known as a DA-Notice with four senior civil servants, with an eminent military figure as secretary, and 13 members nominated by the media to form the Defence Press and Broadcasting Advisory Committee.