In 1912, the Admiralty and the War Office concluded that they needed some means of preventing the press from publishing information which might be of value to a future enemy. After some informal discussion with the press, the then Secretary of the Admiralty met on 13 August 1912 with representatives of the War Office and various Press Associations to discuss the problem. It was agreed that an organisation should be set up to deal with the matter, on which the Press would be represented. The Press representatives sought, and got, assurance that only matters that really did affect the National interest would be concerned.
The Early Members
An Assistant Secretary of the War Office and a Mr. Robbins, the representative of the Press Association, were appointed as joint Secretaries and the arrangement was that if the Admiralty or the War Office wished to inform the Press of something which should not be published the War Office would get in touch with Mr. Robbins, a meeting of the Committee would be convened or the members would be consulted, their agreement would be obtained and thereafter Robbins would send, by hand to the London Editors and by letter or telegram if necessary to provincial Editors, the agreed notice. Telegrams for provincial Editors were to be sent to the local Post Master whose duty it would be to hand them personally to the Editor concerned. These telegrams came to be known as “Parkers” after a Mr. Parker who was at that time the representative of the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association on the Committee.
The News From Non-Governmental Sources
But before the end of 1912 it became apparent that there was another problem and a meeting was held to discuss this. To use the words of a letter which was sent to convene the meeting: “So far we have considered on the Committee, and are using the organisation of the Committee, for the purpose of the suppression of the publication of news which, until we have given it ourselves to the Press, is not known beyond Whitehall; but there are cases at times of important information supplied from entirely outside sources to the Press which they publish without question, though on the face of it the information is of a Confidential or Secret nature and is such that its publication is clearly against the public interest.”
Hammering Out The Early Policy
In accepting an expansion of the system to deal with this particular problem the Press representatives made two stipulations; one was that there should be someone in each of the two departments who should be appointed as a referee and his name, or title, should be communicated to all concerned, and secondly, that the Press ought to receive a clear undertaking that papers should only be asked to refrain from publishing news when it was really of a Secret nature and the liberty must not be denied to Editors to criticise their policy. This too was agreed by the Official representatives who pointed out that the object of the arrangement was to prevent disclosure of information as the facts and not to stifle comments on policy. Editors seeking advice were invited to address their queries to the Clerk-in-Waiting at the Admiralty or War Office, as appropriate, by letter, or by telephone if necessary (though this was advised against for fear of misunderstandings) and Editors were asked to avoid, if possible, asking questions out of office hours; which seems to indicate that life was a bit slower in 1912 than it is nowadays.
Between The World Wars
When war started in 1914 the functions of the Committee were assumed by the Press Bureau, although the organisation of the Committee for distributing information to the Press was used. After the war, once again the original Committee came into being, with again the same method of distribution of orders and again, a representative of the Press Association acting as Secretary of the Committee. This seems to have gone on in years of peace, although in 1937 an interdepartmental Committee – representatives of the three Services (because the Air Ministry had joined on the formation of the RAF) – did discuss whether some improvement might be made in the system and whether it might be possible to provide the Press with a standing guide to the sort of things which might cause difficulty in the security field.
World War II
Nothing seems to have happened however before the outbreak of war in 1939 when the D-Notice system was suspended and its role replaced by Press Censorship under the Ministry of Information. During this period Admiral George Thompson was the Chief Press Censor and he it was who at the end of the war took on the duties of Secretary of what was then called the Admiralty, War Office, Air Ministry and Press Committee, the press having insisted that the Government should provide a Secretary and should arrange and pay for the distribution of D-Notices.
The Early Post-War Years
During his time as Chief Press Censor, Admiral Thompson had of course become well known to the Press and it is evident from the many letters which were written to him at the end of the war that he had earned their universal respect, and indeed admiration. Under him the system proceeded happily until he retired in the early sixties. In 1967 however the unfortunate MI5 Cable Vetting affair and the intemperate reaction, as he himself subsequently admitted, of the then PM (Mr. Wilson) almost resulted in the system’s demise, but it survived and recovered its breath under the wise Secretaryship of Vice Admiral Sir Norman Denning and the guidance of the Committee which had in the meantime been retitled the Services, Press and Broadcasting Committee.
From D-Notices to DA-Notices
In 1971 a major change was made by cancelling all existing D-Notices and replacing them with standing D-Notices to give recipients sufficient guidance on subjects in which considerations of national security could be involved, to enable an editor to decide whether to publish, spike or seek advice from the Secretary. There were eleven such notices covering Defence, Civil Service, Nuclear, Radio and Radar, Intelligence, Security and Communications matters and a twelfth included at the specific request of the Australian Government. These twelve were later further refined and reduced where specific items where concerned, eg in the case of military aircraft and aero engines. The Committee’s title was changed first to the Defence, Press and Broadcasting Committee, and in 1993 to the Defence, Press and Broadcasting Advisory Committee, when the 6 standing D-Notices were renamed DA-Notices (Defence Advisory Notices). In May 2000, these were further updated and reduced to the present 5 notices.
The Independent Review of the DA Notice System. The report of the Independent Review upheld the value and relevance of the DA Notice System, and it confirmed that the System had the full support of the Government and the national media. It also proposed a number of changes in response to evolving social, media and security challenges, the most important of which came into effect on 31 July 2015. They were:
New Names: The historical tag of ‘D Notices’ – which continued to be used as media shorthand and the website address long after the introduction of the title ‘Defence Advisory’ in 1993 – was widely misunderstood, both by the public and the media themselves. The emphasis on ‘defence’ was also seen to be misleading as the System has for many years provided advice to the media on the disclosure of information on wider aspects of national security, most notably the national intelligence agencies. The Committee therefore decided that the existing titles should be replaced by the following new names:
– The name ‘Defence Advisory (or DA) Notice System’ was replaced by the ‘Defence and Security Media Advisory (DSMA) System’.
– The 5 standing ‘DA Notices’ were renamed DSMA Notices.
– The ‘Defence Press and Broadcasting Advisory Committee (DPBAC) (the System’s oversight body) was renamed the ‘DSMA Committee’.
– The title of the Committee’s website – www.dnotice.org.uk – was changed to www.dsma.uk
– The contact email address was changed from firstname.lastname@example.org to email@example.com
New Wording of the Standing Notices: The Review report concluded that while the existing ambit of the five Standing Notices should remain, their wording should be improved and modernised. This work was completed in February 2017.
New Digital Members of the Committee: The Review report recommended an expansion of the digital-only membership of the Committee whilst recognising that today, almost all media outlets work in the digital field. The Committee is keen to recruit new digital members to its ranks and welcomes approaches.
Other Recommendations. Not all of the Review’s recommendations were accepted. These included the Committee’s chairmanship, which the Government considered should continue to be held by a senior official whose role was closely aligned with the Committee’s work. It also included a change to the departmental stewardship of the Committee’s Secretariat, which the Government felt should be revisited in the future and the full range of options considered. Finally, the Review report highlighted the widespread lack of understanding of the System. It stressed the need for more active promotion. This recommendation has been fully endorsed and the Committee is keen to offer briefings on the System to any interested party.
‘Secrecy and the Media – the Official History of the D Notice System’ by Nicholas Wilkinson is the first book to examine the development of the D/DA Notice system. It traces the development of the system from the nineteenth-century colonial campaigns, through two World Wars, to modern operations and counter-terrorism in the post-Cold War era, up to 1997. Examples are drawn from media, political and official sources, and cover not only defence issues (including Special Forces), but also the activities of the secret intelligence services MI5, MI6 and GCHQ. These cases relate principally to the UK, but also to American and other allies’ interests. The book was published in hardback by Routledge on 26 May 2009, has 656 pages and costs £49.95. The ISBN nuber is 978-0-425-45375-2.