DA-Notices are guidance issued by a committee of government and media representatives in the United Kingdom, advising on sensitive material which should not be published, for reasons of national security. Usually the media comply fully with DA-Notices, and only in rare cases do disputes arise that require injunctions, use of the Official Secrets Act, or defences of public interest.

The system was introduced in 1912, and from the first was voluntary and cooperative. For the duration of World War Two it was replaced by censorship. They were originally called D-Notices (for "Defence"), but in 1993 with the ending of the Cold War they were renamed DA-Notices ("Defence Advisory"). Formerly there were individual D-Notices for specific issues, and if a case of national security arose a story could be amended by putting a D-Notice on it. In 1993 the individual ones were replaced by standing notices, of which there are now five.

These five cover the obvious areas that are highly important to national security, and these days terrorists rather than enemy powers are those who would most benefit if the information was loose. Few people would question in general the reasonableness of suppressing this information:

  1. Military Operations, Plans and Capabilities
  2. Nuclear and Non-Nuclear Weapons and Equipment
  3. Ciphers and Secure Communications
  4. Sensitive Installations and Home Addresses
  5. United Kingdom Security and Intelligence Services and Special Forces

Of course there are ramifications of political interference and freedom of the press that can arise and make judgements difficult. The Spycatcher affair and other unauthorised publications by intelligence or special forces members; the killing of IRA agents in Gibraltar; the banning of trade unions at GCHQ headquarters in Cheltenham: all these are political issues where it is not clear that the government story should be accepted in the national interest.

DA-Notices are issued and controlled by an independent committee, now called the Defence, Press and Broadcasting Advisory Committee (DPBAC), chaired by the Permanent Under Secretary of the Ministry of Defence. The Secretary of this committee, the first port of call for discussion, is a retired civil servant of some kind with high enough seniority and security clearance to be able to evaluate all the issues and requests; in recent years he has usually been a retired admiral. The government has three representatives: one each from Defence, the Home Office, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Press, radio, and television organisations supply thirteen members.

The DPBAC has no legal power to prevent publication, or to impose penalties for disclosure. It is not a legal instrument; it is an advisory body to coordinate media and government. If the government really needs to suppress a story it has to take out an injunction before a judge and show that the story would violate some canon such as the Official Secrets Act. This is expensive, confrontational, controversial, and blocks the entire story; whereas self-censorship under a DA-Notice would allow almost all of the story to go out, with the odd address removed, face pixellated out, or troop movement made vague. The DBPAC also has no power to adjudicate on complaints: that is the responsibility of the Press Complaints Commission.

DPBAC: www.dnotice.org.uk/

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