Why we refused to comply with the D-Notice committee

by Mark Curtis, Declassified UK, 17 February 2022

A body run by the UK military has asked us to remove part of our story revealing British support for an African dictatorship. Here’s why we said no to its “formal advice” not to publish.

Last week I received an email from a body called the DSMA committee asking Declassified to remove something from one of our articles.

That body, the Defence and Security Media Advisory Committee, is run by the Ministry of Defence’s Director General for Security Policy. It exists supposedly to “prevent inadvertent public disclosure of information that would compromise UK military, counterterrorist and intelligence operations”. 

It is better known as the ‘D-Notice’ committee.

It’s a voluntary system and the email, from retired navy Captain Jon Perkins, a deputy secretary of the committee, was very friendly and polite. He emphasised that the decision to publish information rested solely with Declassified.

We had written an article on Cameroon published two weeks before. It revealed for the first time details of how the British military is propping up its repressive regime, run by Paul Biya, Africa’s oldest dictator, who has ruled with an iron fist since 1982. He turned 89 on Sunday.

Our chief reporter Phil Miller found that not only is Britain training Biya’s military, which is accused of torture and executions, but that a UK special forces officer has even drawn up a “crisis management” doctrine for the dictator.

That British officer has also cultivated “influential relationships” with Biya’s right-hand man and his spy chief.

In other words, the UK is up to its neck in yet another dictatorship.

The DSMA email asked us to remove the name of the British senior military adviser, Lt Col ‘Sid’ Purser. “The publication of that name…jeopardises the personal safety of the officer and indeed may also compromise his family”, I was told.

The email added: “The detail thus runs contrary to the terms of DSMA Notice 5 (Sensitive Personal Information). May I therefore request that you remove the name from the article, perhaps instead referring to ‘a British Officer’”.

Stifling journalism?

Declassified’s journalism will never knowingly put anyone’s life in danger. We take matters of personal safety very seriously in our work and would never recklessly publish details.

Indeed, prior to publication, we had told the MOD press office in detail what would be in our story. They did not seek an injunction. 

Instead they waited until after our article went online to request Purser’s name be censored. We declined, and didn’t hear anymore about the issue until the committee’s email appeared a fortnight later.

We weighed the request up but in the end our decision was clear-cut. Cameroon is a dictatorship. Purser’s highly political role directly links him to the survival of that regime. It’s in the public interest to name a special forces officer there colluding with Biya’s henchmen.

We also couldn’t see how our article would create any additional risk to him. The Cameroon High Commission had previously announced that Purser had received a presidential medal and a news website had named him as having a counter-terrorism role in Cameroon.

‘Formal advice’

I was initially told the email from the committee was “informal DSM advice”. But the committee website appears to make no provision for it to issue such “informal” advice. 

I asked for clarification. Brigadier Geoffrey Dodds, the secretary of the committee, stepped in to say it was actually “formal” DSM advice. 

This was still confusing. The committee’s website refers to the issuing of D-Notices. This is when it sends “guidance” to editors to “protect national security” on sensitive pieces of information. 

It can include issuing a letter to be “distributed by email to all editors and through the Press Association and the Society of Editors’ networks”.  

Had I received such a D-Notice, albeit one that had been sent only to Declassified? It remains unclear. If so, this would be the first sent by the committee to any media organisation since January 2019

The committee says it sends few “formal” requests to editors to censor themselves. 

So were these polite emails, asking Declassified to modify its journalism, applying no legal pressure whatsoever, still an attempt to stifle critical scrutiny of UK government policies?

And is the lack of clarity symptomatic of a system that operates mainly via nods and winks?

Declassified’s very first article, back in September 2019, showed how the DSMA committee successfully sought in June 2013 to use D-Notices to prevent media organisations publishing the full bombshell revelations of US whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Neither is this the first time the MOD has sought to confront us. Less than a year after our launch, an unnamed military officer in the MOD press office proposed Declassified be “put on a list of organisations which the department would not engage with.

”They stopped providing any comment for our stories. Eventually, however, defence secretary Ben Wallace was forced to apologise to us and the blacklisting was stopped.

Not playing the game

This game of officials asking journalists to self-censor, and their compliance, is one that Declassified will never play. 

The DSMA is a very traditional British institution. It is part of the chumocracy where media organisations are regularly willing to please Whitehall.

Many do so to retain “access”, so that they are slipped exclusives about this or that UK deployment or special operation. UK media organisations regularly simply write up MOD media releases and present them as “news” – just look at the recent coverage of Ukraine.

Probably most of what people read in their papers about the UK military comes from the MOD itself – something that is not widely understood. Mainstream defence journalists tend to welcome Britain’s wars and routinely fail to question key government military and intelligence policies. 

They even have fora such as the Defence Correspondents Association, a select club of journalists invited for informal chats over wine with the defence secretary. It promotes the clubby-style of reporting that the DSMA also encourages.

To a large degree, the MOD controls what is reported in the UK media – not by coercion, still less conspiracy, but because journalists are willingly co-opted.

Take this fact, for example. In the six months from April-October 2021, the DSMA Committee was contacted on 78 occasions for “advice” on publishing. Of these requests, 34 were initiated by the media themselves. 

The rest were initiated by government officials (29) and members of the public (15). Nearly 20% of the requests related to the special forces. 

Sitting on the DSMA committee along with the MOD is a slew of mainstream media outlets. Representatives from broadcasters ITV, BBC and Sky are there. The press is present in the form of the managing editor of the Times and Sunday Times, and the deputy editor of the Telegraph. Then there’s the director of the Press Association and the Society of Editors.

No doubt they argue they’re on the committee to defend the interests of their media organisations, not to be cowed by the MOD. But why bother sitting on the committee at all? Why recognise any kind of informal state influence over what journalists write?

I also wonder this: how many other polite emails containing “advice” does the DSMA committee send to other journalists asking them to withdraw stories or key information? 

And how many agree to those requests that we don’t know of?