Unnecessary secrets
10 Nov 2008

Further restrictions on reporting of security issues would be disastrous and misguided, writes David Davis

Calls for unprecedented and legally binding powers to ban the media from reporting matters of national security, reported on the front page of the Independent, would be incredible had they come from a government minister in this heavy-handed anti-liberal government. Being cited as coming from the Intelligence and Security Committee, a committee that consists entirely of members of the Houses of Parliament, they are virtually unbelievable.

The Committee itself never comments in public, least of all on issues about its own business, and I think it highly unlikely that they themselves were the official sources of this briefing. It seems much more likely that this was a helpful briefing from Whitehall ‘on behalf’ of the committee.

What the proposals amount to is an attack on the DA-Notice Committee which, along with its predecessor the D-Notice Committee, has over the decades successfully managed a fine balancing act in both protecting press freedom and protecting national security.

Those operating the DA-Notice Committee are people who understand better than most Whitehall civil servants what is really necessary to keep secret and what is simply convenient. They take their responsibilities in both areas very seriously; something which is demonstrated by the fact that I can think of at least one occasion in the last three years when Whitehall was upset about a story which the DA Committee cleared.

More to the point, I can think of more than one example, in the last decade, in which the classification or redaction of information by the secret sections of Whitehall were clearly carried out in order to avoid embarrassment rather than to protect national security.

The reasoning behind this proposal gives even more cause for astonishment. There is only one example in the public domain in which a case was compromised by information being released to the press. This is the case of an Islamist plot to kidnap and murder a British serviceman in 2007, when cameras and reporters were present virtually at the arrest of the suspects in Birmingham. The only possible sources of this leaked information are those civil servants, ministers and advisors within the extremely secure Whitehall boundaries, or the police themselves.

Unsurprisingly, despite an extensive enquiry and police investigation, nothing was ever proven.

It is incredible, that as a direct result of a security failure caused by leaks within their own ranks, Whitehall and the government are now attempting to control the press in a manner reminiscent of something from behind the Iron Curtain.

The irony of all this, is that the press has done a very good job, both in this country and others, in balancing responsible reporting with a need to provide a degree of accountability by those charged with protecting our security.

Notably, in the 7/7 atrocity, it was the British press who highlighted the weaknesses in the security systems that allowed Mohammad Sadique Khan to remain at liberty sufficiently long enough to plan and execute the hideous attack on London commuters. There was a great deal of fuss at the time that this might compromise trials or security in some way. It did not. If anything it improved our awareness of what needed to be done to improve the security of the country and the effectiveness of our security agencies.

The outcome of this proposal therefore, is likely to be one of actually undermining the accountability of security agencies and reducing the effectiveness of our counter-terrorist policy. All this, it seems to me, for a more comfortable life of some of the Whitehall mandarins and their political masters.

It is a disastrous idea, one which would degrade both our freedom of speech and our security at the same time, and one which should, and will, be resisted by everyone who understands the traditions of freedom in this country.

David Davis is Conservative MP for Haltemprice and Howden

3 responses to “Unnecessary secrets”

  1. Simon Bucks says:

    David, as vice-chair of the DA notice commitee and de facto chair of the media side, I am grateful for your support. We will of course wait for the ISC to report formally before reacting publicly, but you should know that when this came up in the committee report a year ago I wrote in strong terms to the then chair, Margaret Beckett, and invited the committee to, at least, take evidence from us so they could form their judgements based on proper information. They have not taken us up on that, so if the Independent story turns out to be accurate the committee will once again have launched an unwarranted attach on the DA-notice system without taking the trouble to check the facts.
    Also, I am doubtful that the Birmingham “beheading plot” itself would be covered by the DA notice system, since it was more a police matter than one of national security. But I accept that it arguable.

  2. John Pickworth says:

    I absolutely agree with Mr Davis.

    Leave the system alone, it works just fine… what guarantee would we have that a new one would work any better? The press should have the freedom to ‘publish and be damned’. Without that freedom, there simply is no free press.

  3. Actually David, whilst I broadly agree with you there is one area where I disagree and that is on the number of bits of information in the media which damage national security. There have been loads, but all as the result of either news conferences, briefings or leaks from either Whitehall, the security services or the police. In all cases the answer is to stop the dangerous leaks not the freedom of the press.