secrecy {fragments}

~ musings on secrecy ~

Secrecy and the Media: The Official History of the United Kingdom’s D-Notice System

Nicholas Wilkinson’s  (Routledge, 2009) Secrecy and the Media: The Official History of the United Kingdom’s D-Notice System is a breathtaking history of the “UK governmental machine” (p.484) and the first official history of the D-Notice system. Secrecy is a tour de force, covering the D-Notice system from its origins in Victorian national security concerns and regulation of the press on the battlefield to 1997 and subsequent reviews of the  system in 1971 and 1992.*** Described as a “compact between the British Government and British Media  to prevent inadvertent damage to national security through the public disclosure of highly sensitive information” (Sir Bill Jeffrey and Simon Bucks, p.xii), D-Notice  history is woven by Mr. Wilkinson through official sources and media accounts.

In 1971, the D-Notice was renamed to the DA-List, which reflect the system’s focus on protection of military, defense , and intelligence information; at present, there are different levels of DA Notices, which range from DA 01 (military operations)-DA05 (UK intel services). Currently overseen by the Defence, Press & Broadcasting Advisory Commitee (DPBAC), “an advisory body composed of senior civil servants and editors from national and regional newspapers, periodicals, news agencies, television and radio. It operates on the shared belief that there is a continuing need for a system of guidance and advice such as the DA-Notice System, and that a voluntary, advisory basis is best for such a system.” The official DA-Notices System Web site is

What I find compelling about Secrecy are the censorship, freedom of the press, investigative journalism, responsibility of the media in terms of the public right to know, and “history delayed” issues raised by the D-Notice system (see the President and The Press, below). The DPBAC anticipated my concern over censorship in its FAQ, although the answers are less than satisfying from both a philosophical and sociological perspective:

Is the DA-Notice system a form of (voluntary or self) censorship?

  • A voluntary system cannot be censorship. It does sometimes provide reasons for self-regulation by editors and others, in the same way that they are faced with self-regulation for all kinds of other reasons – legal, moral, financial, public taste, etc.

In ruminating over the DPBAC’s answer, I wonder about the role of collective self-censorship as applied to the compact between media & government.

The book is not without its own controversy. Five chapters were withheld that will be published at a later time.
Related  is the Australian D-Notice system and the WWII Office of Censorship (see Michael Sweeney’s Secrets of Victory, UNC Press, 2001).

Update: See the BBC’s (2011, August) D for discretion: Can the modern media keep a secret?


Written by S.

January 21, 2010 at 5:03 am