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The D-Notice: Very British State Censorship
Julian Assange is “dangerously close” to being extradited to the US after losing his latest legal appeal.
In a three-page judgment handed down on June 6th, British High Court judge Justice Jonathan Swift rejected all eight grounds of Julian’s appeal against the US extradition order, signed by then-Home Secretary Priti Patel a year ago.
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Julian’s lawyers will now appeal again to the same court. Should that fail, he will stand trial in the US for publishing thousands of classified military and diplomatic documents, for which he faces a combined total sentence of up to 175 years in prison. He has been held in Britain’s notorious Belmarsh prison for over four years, his mental and physical health declining every day.
Depressingly, it should be assumed that Julian will eventually be dispatched Stateside. A striking feature of both the January 2021 ruling on Assange’s extradition, as well as the High Court judgement on Washington’s appeal, was considerations of press freedom did not factor into the rulings whatsoever. District Judge Vanessa Baraitser accepted the evidence underlying each dubious US charge at face value. Meanwhile, the High Court dismissed any suggestion Julian’s extradition would be “unjust”.
Such troubling perspectives are surely symptomatic of Britain’s culture of state secrecy, the most intensive and draconian in the Western world.
Introducing the DSMA
Little known and rarely discussed by the media establishment, London has for decades maintained the highly secretive Defense and Security Media Advisory (DSMA) Committee, which imposes a very British form of censorship on the press. It decides which subjects and events can be reported on, and how, in a chivalrous yet fundamentally dishonest manner.
The DSMA Committee is a Ministry of Defence-run body composed of representatives of the security services, military veterans, high ranking government officials, press association chiefs, senior editors, and journalists, which meets every six months. For example, representatives of the BBC, ITV and Sky News are all members.
Often the Committee issues D-notices as an official request to journalists not to publish or broadcast particular information on subjects related to national security. Alternatively, its representatives request the removal of certain details from reporting on supposedly sensitive topics.
As of 2017, there are five standing notices, concerning; military operations, plans and capabilities; nuclear and non-nuclear weapon systems and equipment; military counter-terrorist forces, special forces and intelligence agency operations, activities and communication methods and techniques; physical property and assets; personnel and their families who work in sensitive positions.
If the Committee Secretary believes a story will soon be published, or has been published, which falls under one or more of those areas, emails are dispatched to the editors of all mainstream publications. They are typically marked “private and confidential: not for publication, broadcast or use on social media.”
Minutes of the most recent DSMA Committee meeting, in April this year, indicated from May to November, it issued advice to journalists on 37 separate occasions. This was below an “Autumn/Winter trend” of 50 over the past three years.
DSMA Deputy Secretary Captain Jon Perkins, a Royal Navy veteran, noted “the number of items was less significant as a metric than the extreme sensitivity (in national security terms) of some of the material” which the Committee prevented from being reported on by the British media. He added that some of this material “had been of the most sensitive nature he had seen” since joining the Committee.
While the nature of this material is unstated, one can’t help but wonder if that passage refers to The Grayzone’s series of reports during this period on London’s secret role in the Ukraine proxy war. These exposés received enormous international attention and were reported on by media outlets in every corner of the world, bar Britain.
In any event, the minutes cite two examples of “the system in action.” First, an unnamed British intelligence agency “had an incident involving a foreign national.” The Committee fired off demands to conceal the individual’s name, “which was accepted” by the entirety of the media.
“Although some information emerged into the public domain over subsequent weeks, the potential risk to the individual was minimised,” the Committee recorded. It claimed this incident “demonstrated the effectiveness of the open channel and reservoir of trust” between the DSMA secretariat, and journalists and editors.
The other example related to “current operations”. A journalist “discovered the identity of a small unit about to deploy on operations overseas” - a reference to the Russian invasion of Ukraine - and approached the Committee for guidance on reporting the development. They ultimately decided not to publish the story, although made “some cogent points” to the Committee. Namely, the “widely known” presence of British forces in Ukraine “was part of a very large international coalition effort, and there was open source evidence to prove it”:
“The availability online of commercially available overhead imagery as well as photographs and videos with tracking data meant information previously the preserve of national intelligence effort was freely available to all in real time. Unlike the citizen observer the professional journalist was both trained and committed to standards of truth and even-handedness by which the amateur was not bound.”
Seek Our Advice - Or Else
Letters from the DSMA Committee typically conclude with polite questions such as, “May I ask you to seek my advice before doing so?” Such civility belies a sinister paradox at the system’s core.
On paper, this may seem advisory, and editors and journalists are not legally obliged to comply with the Committee's requests to solicit guidance before publishing a story, or keep certain information secret. Yet, reporters are well aware that if they fail to comply, they could be prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act. If not, they may at least be blacklisted, or lose access to on- and off-the-record briefings, interviews, and privileged information from officials.
There are very few examples of D-notices ever being broken, and letters are rarely sent. Between 1997 and 2008, the Committee wrote to news outlets on only 30 occasions.
A palpable example of the system’s effectiveness came in November 2010, when a D-notice was issued following WikiLeaks’ initial releases of US State Department cables. It warned publicizing the files “might trigger violent local reactions” against British citizens “working or living in volatile regions.”
Clearly, the implication was journalists who dared publish anything on the explosive material would have blood on their hands. So it was the overwhelming majority of the British media resultantly ignored the cables.
It is an open question whether the DSMA Committee similarly discouraged news outlets from pursuing stories related to Washington’s vilification of Julian Assange. Despite his unprecedented case providing clear headline-fodder, British media coverage has been uniquely flaccid.
For example, in June 2021, Icelandic magazine Stundin revealed a superseding indictment against the WikiLeaks chief was based largely on the false testimony of a fraudster, diagnosed sociopath and convicted paedophile, who the FBI had recruited to undermine the organization from within. Not a single British journalist covered it.
Three months later, Yahoo! News exposed the CIA’s '“secret war plans” to kidnap or even murder Assange in the event he escaped the Ecuadorian embassy in London. BBC News mentioned the bombshell exposé - albeit in its Somali-language section. The Guardian and Independent referenced the story once too. All other British media ignored the reporting.
‘Every Working Day’
According to figures cited in Ian Cobain’s 2016 book The History Thieves, the DSMA Committee estimates 80 - 90 percent of stories journalists suspect could reference material subject to one of the five D-notices are voluntarily submitted for official examination, and potential censorship, in advance of publication. The DSMA Committee vice chair has boasted, “on average a journalist consults the secretariat every working day.”
Few if any British citizens are aware of this perverse state of affairs, let alone that it results in the overwhelming majority of media coverage of national security issues being bowdlerized and dictated by direct government decree.
There are nonetheless rare examples of journalists and editors not coordinating with the DSMA Committee in advance of publishing stories. The most significant involved The Guardian’s 2013 reporting on sensitive documents shared by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, which exposed the excesses of the secret “Five Eyes” global spying apparatus, led by Washington and London.
On June 7th 2013, the day after The Guardian’s first reports, the Committee fired off a D-notice to newspaper editors, stating that while its guidelines hadn’t been breached, intelligence services were “concerned that further developments of this same theme” could compromise national security. So it was the Snowden revelations were largely ignored by Britain’s media, with most outlets not mentioning the seismic disclosures at all.
The Committee also promptly undertook considerable efforts to cultivate and neutralize The Guardian. In July that year, at the precise moment GCHQ technicians watched as laptops containing the Snowden files were ritualistically destroyed, the outlet solicited Committee advice on the documents and subsequently declined to publish certain information contained therein.
Such engagement steadily increased over the year, culminating in Guardian deputy editor Paul Johnson, who led the symbolic laptop destruction, being appointed to the DSMA Committee.
Three years later, the outlet’s investigative team was dissolved, and The Guardian’s coverage of military, security and intelligence issues declined precipitously since. Presently, many key national security correspondents at the outlet have little or no background in the field, and frequently produce obsequious puff pieces for MI5, MI6, GCHQ et al.
An ‘Urgent’ Warning
The apparent nerve agent poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury on March 4th 2018 provides another example of the Committee’s function.
Two days later, Russian news outlet Meduza published an article outlining Skripal’s spy history, and that of his MI6 recruiter and handler Pablo Miller. It mentioned Miller’s LinkedIn account indicated he too resided in Salisbury.
Miller duly deleted that incriminating profile. Yet, on March 7th, The Daily Telegraph revealed he was now working for Orbis Intelligence, the notorious private security firm led by former MI6 spy Christopher Steele, who authored the widely discredited Trump-Russia dossier.
Despite the publication voluntarily declining to name Miller, within hours the DSMA Secretary issued an “urgent” missive warning editors against revealing identities of British security and intelligence personnel. It urged journalists and editors to consult the Committee if they were “currently considering publication of such material.”
The following day, BBC News’ Gordon Corera and the Guardian’s Luke Harding, both known national security stenographers, took to Twitter and issued firm denials Miller ever worked for Orbis. They also alleged - based on anonymous sources - there was no link whatsoever between Skripal and Steele. Harding even wildly claimed online search engine results attesting to such a connection were the product of nefarious search engine manipulation.
The Daily Telegraph eventually published an article disavowing its previous report as the product of a “black ops attempt” by Kremlin spies, intended to cast doubt on the Steele dossier. “Well-placed sources” were quoted as saying they “suspected” the LinkedIn profile to which the outlet originally referred - “if it ever properly existed at all” - was created by Russian military intelligence.
It Just Gets Worse
The rise of the internet has posed serious problems for the D-notice. After all, it effectively impossible for the British government to prevent publications and journalists outside the country from releasing or amplifying information it does not want in the public domain.
At the Committee’s April meeting, its acting Vice Chair made this precise point, stating “it is increasingly difficult to keep secrets in the current media environment.” The Committee is deeply concerned by “the increasing speed of the news cycle with near instantaneous posting on social media, and the increasing globalisation of news.”
This may at least partially account for why British authorities are planning to greatly expand their ability to jail whistleblowers, leakers, and journalists. The new National Security Bill, scheduled to become law later this year, could land dissident journalists and researchers in jail for life.
Under its draconian terms, anyone convicted under the new offense of “obtaining or disclosing protected information,” faces a fine, life imprisonment, or both, if convicted following a jury trial. “Protected information” is defined as any “restricted material,” and it need not even be classified.
A review by journalist Mohammed Elmaazi of parliamentary debates on the Bill amply shows organisations such as WikiLeaks were a key inspiration for the legislation. Conservative and Labour lawmakers alike were motivated to back it on these grounds, despite some concerns it does not provide for public interest or journalistic defences.
This mephitic push is all the more ominous given the DSMA Committee and its D-notice system already serve as a devastatingly successful mechanism for suppressing journalism.
Chillingly, on the same day Britain’s high court rejected Julian’s appeal, Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian at the time of its Snowden reporting, reflected on the legacy of the former NSA contractor’s sacrifice. He acknowledged the primary upshots were “a scramble by governments to retrospectively pass legislation sanctioning the activities they had been covertly undertaking,” and “a number of stable-door attempts to make sure journalists could never again do what The Guardian and others did 10 years ago.”
“Even now the British government, in hastily revising the laws around official secrecy, is trying to ensure that any editor who behaved as I did 10 years ago would face up to 14 years in prison,” Rusbridger lamented. “So do not hold your breath for future Edward Snowdens in this country. The British media is, by and large, not known for holding its security services rigorously to account, if at all.”
This is an updated version of an April 2022 investigation for reader-supported website The Dissenter. Please consider subscribing.
Kit’s Newsletter is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.