A book on media censorship, you say? Let me get out my black marker
8 June 2009
The official history of the D notice system, the voluntary self-censorship arrangement between the media and Whitehall, has just been published - though, ironically, only after five chapters had been excised.
After Whitehall officials came up with the hitherto unknown rule that official histories should not include matters concerning the administration in power, the offending paragraphs were cut out. So there is nothing in the book about MI5 and MI6's renegades David Shayler and Richard Tomlinson. Nor about Iraq and Afghanistan. ...
Yet, anyone who thinks this government is obsessed with leaks should consider the paranoia of previous administrations. The Labour prime minister Harold Wilson was furious in 1967 when the Daily Express revealed how international telegrams were regularly intercepted by the spooks. The writer argued that publication of the cable intercepts did not harm national security. Wilson said it did, and should have been covered by a D notice. It was clear then, as it has been so many times since, that the government confused national security with political embarrassment.
The history, written by Rear Admiral Nicholas Wilkinson, one of the more enlightened past secretaries of the Committee, provides telling insights into the relationships between editors and Britain's defence, security and intelligence establishment. The voluntary nature of the D notice system - it has no legal status - meant that personal friendships were crucial. Some would say they still are.
Rear Admiral Sir George Thomson, D notice secretary in the early 1960s, put it this way: "The fighting services department [now subsumed into the MoD] ... ask me to write a personal letter to the offending editor. This invariably stops further infringements of the particular subject and produces an expression of regret on the part of the editor, which I pass on to the authorities."
However, editors weren't all toadies, even then, and one of the lessons of this official history is that ministers were very often more concerned about stories appearing than Whitehall officials were. The D notice system, set up in 1912, is falling into desuetude as a respected and relevant forum, and is frequently ignored. The Observer did not approach the D notice secretary in 2004 for advice about whether to publish a memo showing Britain helped the US conduct a secret and potentially illegal spying operation at the UN in the run-up to the Iraq war. Editors of national newspapers and broadcast companies tend to prefer the (declining) risk of an Official Secrets Act prosecution.
Governments and Whitehall officials are also guilty of inconsistency and even hypocrisy when it comes to D notices. Take the issue of special forces. Senior MoD officials continue to insist, in meetings of the D notice Committee, that the activities of the SAS, or its naval equivalent, the SBS, should never be written about. Yet the diktat is ignored by defence officials when it comes to tales of SAS derring-do.
Wilkinson's book was cleared a year ago after checks by MI5, MI6 and GCHQ; the Foreign, Cabinet, and Home Offices; the Treasury solicitor; and the attorney general. The MoD, however, sent the manuscript to the D notice secretary, who apparently objected, not on grounds of security or libel, but for reasons of style, reportedly saying the book should have been written by a "trained historian". To pre-empt a row, the Cabinet Office and MoD agreed to a compromise: the book would be published without five chapters covering the period after Labour's return to power in 1997.
In November last year, the Guardian applied under the Freedom of Information Act to see the missing five chapters of Wilkinson's book. Two months later, the Cabinet Office concluded they could not be released, for two reasons: they would be published at a later date in any event; and disclosure might hurt the commercial interests of the author and publisher.
Plans are afoot to publish the full history - including the past 12 years - as soon as Labour is out of power. Self-censorship acts in mysterious ways.