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The DSMA Notice System

Welcome to the website of the Defence and Security Media Advisory (DSMA) Committee

Frequently Asked Questions

About the DSMA System:

  1. Why does the UK have a system like this when no other country does?

    National approaches to the public disclosure of sensitive national security information are rooted in national culture and law. The UK has tended to prefer voluntary agreements over mandatory arrangements. The DSMA-Notice System has been reviewed several times but the principle of a voluntary system, based on mutually agreed guidelines, is still seen as appropriate by both the Media and the Government.  The system does not guarantee that sensitive national security information will be protected but it plays a valuable part in alerting the media to the consequences of disclosing certain types of information; whilst leaving editors to judge whether to publish or broadcast. These are judgements which, in a wider context, the Media are used to making.

  2. Why does the media follow a voluntary code; surely it wants to publish or broadcast stories in full?

    Editors want to publish or broadcast their story, but not unwittingly to put lives at risk or compromise national security. They will usually not publish or broadcast details which they are persuaded might bring risks of this kind. The value of the DSMA-Notices is that they set guidelines, agreed by the media and government, for those areas in which the risks are most likely to arise.

  3. Why does the government not always do this, rather than rely on a voluntary system?

    Legal action can be costly and time-consuming, often creates adverse publicity, and there is no guarantee that the judge will uphold the government’s case. It can be a very cumbersome mechanism if the government is just seeking the removal of a sensitive point of detail, such as an agents’ name. Injunctions tend to stop a story completely, which is often not the government’s intent.

  4. What were the recommendations of the DPBAC and DA-Notice Review?

    The 2015 Independent Review recommended that the purpose of the system should remain that of preventing inadvertent disclosure of information which 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 or endanger lives.

    The Review also recommended: a restructuring of the leadership of the Committee and broader membership to include the intelligence agencies and digital media; the renaming of the Committee to reflect better its purpose; more active promotion of the system to the Media and Government departments; a transfer of stewardship to the National Security Council in the Cabinet Office to be considered once other changes have been implemented; better accountability of the Secretariat; the renaming of the DA-Notices which should also be rewritten in more understandable terms while retaining their existing ambit; and a more equitable split of costs between the MOD, the Home Office and the FCO.

    Most of the recommendations were accepted in full or in part. However, the Government did not accept the appointment of an independent chair of the Committee as it considered that this might have expanded the role of the Committee from purely advisory to that of an arbitration body. The Government meets the costs of the Committee and its system and remains responsible for the security matters on which the DSMA Committee offers advice.

  5. What powers do the DSMA-Notice Secretary/Committee have?

    None, except those of argument and persuasion.

  6. What is meant by ‘slapping a D-Notice on’ something?

    This very dated phrase sounds dramatic, but it is no longer what actually happens! DSMA-Notices are not issued for particular incidents. The are five standing DSMA-Notices which the DSMA-Notice Secretary might on occasion draw to an editor’s’ attention.

  7. What is ‘National Security’?

    It has been the long tradition of successive UK governments not to define national security.  National security can only be judged in the context of the threats facing and the interests of the UK and its allies.

    Nevertheless, at present and for the purposes of the DSMA-notice system, the term national security can be taken to refer to the security and well-being of the United Kingdom, its overseas territories and its citizens at home or abroad; and its system of government.

  8. What happens if information provided by the media to the Secretary suggests a breach of the Official Secrets Act?

    All discussion between the Media and the Secretary is carried out in confidence. The Secretary’s advice is limited to the areas covered by the five standing DSMA notices.  Any advice offered by the Secretary does not absolve editors from their responsibilities under the Official Secrets Act.

  9. What are the benefits of the DSMA-Notice system?

    DSMA-Notices are guidelines for editors, broadcasters, authors and publishers, agreed jointly by representatives of the media and government departments directly concerned with national security, about the type of information which should be protected for national security reasons.

    The DSMA-Notice Secretary is always available to the media and government to help resolve disagreement about what should be disclosed and to find a mutually acceptable outcome.

    Negotiation through the DSMA-Notice Secretary normally provides an acceptable solution, and is quicker and cheaper than legal recourse.

  10. What action does the Secretary take?

    After seeking advice from the government department concerned, the DSMA-Notice Secretary advises the media about information which could damage national security. Examples might include details about a current or planned operation or which could endanger the life or effectiveness of an agent.

    He might suggest ways of avoiding such damage, e.g. concealing identities in photographs or film by pixelation.

    He negotiates if necessary between the media and the department concerned so that as much as possible can be published without real damage.

  11. Must the Secretary accept the official position on damage to national security?

    No, the Secretary has to be persuaded of the need for secrecy, within the scope of the guidelines set out by the DSMA-Notices; he will also consider whether the facts are already widely in the public domain.

  12. Might ‘damage’ to national security be claimed to mask wider instances of official embarrassment?

    Political or official embarrassment are not valid grounds under the five standing DSMA-Notices for advising against public disclosure of information.

  13. Is the DSMA-Notice system a form of censorship?

    No, by definition a voluntary system cannot be censorship. DSMA-Notices are guidance for the media in self-regulation. Publication is still a matter of judgement for editors who are well used to regulating content on a wide range of matters, including when e.g. harm to individuals, financial loss or an offence to public taste may result.

  14. If an editor does publish/broadcast something which is damaging to national security, or threatens to do so, what does the DSMA-Notice system do about it?

    When a newspaper or broadcast channel inadvertently releases information which might damage national security, the Secretary may contact the editor to point this out and offer advice on how further inadvertent damage might be avoided. If the release of information is intentional, no further action is taken by the DSMA-Notice Secretary. If a government department is sufficiently concerned, they may initiate police and/or legal action, but this is not at the behest, or with the involvement in any other way, of the DSMA-Notice Secretary or Committee.

  15. If a fact has been published, does that mean that it can then be republished even if it is damaging to national security?

    That depends on how and where the information has been published.

    Sensitive information which has already ‘been widely disclosed or discussed’ should not be withheld.

    However judgements about what is ‘widely available in the public domain’ tend to be subjective.  A statement by a writer with no authority in an obscure publication, broadcaster or website is unlikely to have a significant impact or effect.  Therefore, each case has to be assessed on its own merits.

  16. If a book or article or programme has been cleared through the DSMA-Notice system, does that mean that everything in it is true?

    No.  DSMA-notice system advice on manuscripts covers matters which may damage national security, the critical national infrastructure or endanger lives.  Advice is not offered on the accuracy and reliability of the manuscript.

  17. How does the DSMA-Notice Secretary know when his advice is needed?

    A news room may contact the DSMA-Notice Secretary with information that they intend to publish or broadcast a story on matters covered by the DSMA-Notices, with a request for more specific advice on the sensitivity of certain details.

    Officials may get in touch with the DSMA-Notice Secretary to raise a concern – e.g. an Intelligence Agency might become aware that a TV company has been filming activities that might compromise the work or safety of their agents.

    The DSMA-Notice Secretary might, for example, learn that a book about the SAS is to be published.

    When important national security issues emerge, bringing a heightened risk that the media might inadvertently publish or broadcast information which could damage national security, the Secretary writes to all UK editors alerting them to the risks and asking them to consider seeking his advice before releasing sensitive details.

    When a newspaper or broadcast channel inadvertently releases information which might damage national security, the Secretary may contact the editor to point this out and offer advice on how further inadvertent damage might be avoided.

  18. Does the growing importance of digital and social media mean that the DSMA-Notice System is no longer relevant?

    The DSMA-notices are voluntary guidelines.  The diversity of the British media (including some small organisations which have never followed DSMA-notice guidance) means that the system has never been wholly effective. It is an imperfect system.

    The mainstream media is generally committed to the DSMA-notice system and maintains a significant digital presence and readership.  Importantly, it also enjoys high levels of trust and credibility.

    Digital and social media have produced important new challenges to the system.  Some digital publications enjoy the same levels of trust and credibility enjoyed by the mainstream media.  Others do not.

    At present, the system can and does work to prevent damage to national security and reduce the risk to people’s lives.  Nevertheless, the DSMA Committee is well aware of the need to embrace the (relatively) new digital organisations and platforms and is taking steps to reach out to them.

  19. Does the Government do anything if an editor decides to publish/broadcast something that is likely to damage national security?

    In serious cases, the government department concerned can initiate police and/or legal action, including seeking a court injunction to stop something being published.

  20. Does the DSMA-Notice system apply to the Internet?

    Matters published on overseas based websites (and in foreign newspapers) are beyond the influence of the DSMA-notice system. The status of UK internet service providers as ‘publishers’ remains unclear.

    The Defence and Security Media Advisory (DSMA) Committee has several experts in digital media among its membership.

    The DSMA Committee is committed and is keen to strengthen its contacts with all digital and social media organisations and platforms.

  21. Does any other country have anything similar to the DSMA-Notice System?

    A survey of 15 countries in 2010 found that none had comparable arrangements to provide guidance to the Media to prevent inadvertent disclosure of information that might put at risk the safety of those involved in military or intelligence operations; or lead to attacks that would damage the critical national infrastructure or endanger lives. However, most countries do have a similar official secrets act or acts; and a professional journalist code of conduct.

  22. Do the media have to use the DSMA-Notice system?

    No, it is voluntary. Even if the media seek the advice of the DSMA-Notice Secretary they are under no obligation to accept this advice, or to accede to his requests or proposals. The final decision on publishing or broadcasting something material rests with the editor.

  23. Are all books on DSMA-Notice subjects dealt with under the DSMA-Notice System?

    As a rule, books are only considered if the publisher/author or the Department concerned asks for advice from the DSMA-Notice Secretary. Such requests have grown steadily over the recent years. This trend is expected to continue and is the reason why the (Book) Publishers’ Association is represented on the DSMA Committee.

About the DSMA Committee:

  1. Is the occasional description in the media of the media representatives as ‘token journalists’ on an official committee accurate?

    The media representatives form a substantial majority of members on an independent Committee which is not responsible to any political, departmental or official organisation. The media representatives respond to official initiatives but also put forward their own.  For example, the media-side recommended the recent revision of the DSMA-Notices.  Media and official representatives discuss relevant matters in a full and frank manner but decisions are reached by mutual agreement.

  2. How are the twenty media members of the DSMA Committee chosen?

    They are nominated by media organizations and associations: BBC, ITV, ITN, Sky TV, Janes, Professional Publishers’ Association (2), the News Media Association (6), the Press Association (1), Newsbrands Scotland (1), the Society of Editors (1), the (Book) Publishers’ Association(1). The Chairman and Vice-Chairmen select three members from the digital-only media.  The media members choose their own chairman who is also the DSMA Committee Vice-Chairman.

  3. How are the five officials on the Committee chosen?

    They are ex-officio posts. The Chairman is the Director General Security Policy at the Ministry of Defence. His/her deputy covers Ministry of Defence interests; in particular Special Forces and Defence Intelligence. The Cabinet Office representative covers security intelligence coordination issues. The Home Office representative covers Security Service and legislative matters and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office representative covers Secret Intelligence Service and Government Communications Headquarters matters.

About the DSMA Secretary:

  1. What qualifications are required in selecting the Secretary?

    The Secretary should be familiar with the workings of Government, the Armed Forces and the media and have some knowledge of the secret intelligence and security agencies.  The Secretary should also have sufficient stature to deal easily with officials and media at any level.  He/She should be a skilful negotiator and have no past or present conflicts of interest with the areas of DSMA-Notice interest. The current Secretary is a retired Army Brigadier.

  2. Is the DSMA-Notice Secretary not really just another official?

    For convenience, the DSMA-Notice Secretary is accommodated and administratively supported by the Ministry of Defence and paid as a civil servant.  However, the Secretary works only for the Committee and is required to be independent and even-handed in his/her dealings with the media and officials.  The Secretary has such access to official information as is necessary to make informed judgements when interpreting the DSMA-notices for the benefit of the media and officials alike. He is likewise privy to as much unpublished media information as is thought necessary to enable him to represent media views to officials.

  3. How is the Secretary selected?

    The post is advertised widely.  The Chairman and Vice-Chairmen of the Committee make the final selection.

  4. How is the DSMA-Notice system funded?

    The salaries and running costs amount to approximately £250,000 per annum and are funded by the Ministry of Defence. The Government accepted there was merit in the recommendation from the 2015 Independent DPBAC Review that the costs should be spread more equitably across Government departments.  However, it judged that the administrative burden of doing so would be disproportionate to the costs involved.

  5. Does the DSMA-Notice Secretary work alone?

    The Secretary is supported by two part-time Deputy Secretaries and a part-time PA.

  6. Does the DSMA Committee deal with complaints about media activity?

    Only if directly relevant to DSMA-Notice guidelines on endangering National Security. Otherwise, complaints should be addressed to The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) (