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Debunking the D-Notice meme

Hold up!

See that little date above?

This post was published years ago.

My opinions have changed over time: I think it's quite fun to keep old posts online so that you can see how that has happened. The downside is that there are posts on this site that express views that I now find offensive, or use language in ways I'd never dream of using it today.

I don't believe in airbrushing history, but I do believe that it's important to acknowledge the obvious: some of what I've written in the past has been crap. Some of it was offensive. Some of it was offensively bad. And there's may be some brass among the muck (you can make up your own mind on that).

Some of what I've presented as my own views has been me—wittingly or unwittingly—posturing without having considered all the facts. In a few years, I'll probably think the same about what I'm writing today, and I'm fine with that. Things change. People grow. Society moves forward.

The internet moves on too, which means there might be broken links or embedded content that fails to load. If you're unlucky, that might mean that this post makes no sense at all.

So please consider yourself duly warned: this post is an historical artefact. It's not an exposition of my current views nor a piece of 'content' than necessarily 'works'.

You may now read on... and in most cases, the post you're about to read is considerably shorter than this warning box, so brace for disappointment.

On Saturday, a rally was held in London against the Health and Social Care Bill. Tweets have suggested that this peaceful rally was somewhat over-policed, with armed riot police in attendance and protesters being kettled. There’s some coverage on Indymedia, but little coverage by the mainstream media.

There’s a Twitter meme stating that the reason for the lack of mainstream media coverage is because a “D-Notice” has been issued by the Government to prevent reporting. This meme appears to stem from Dr No’s blog.

I should state clearly at this point that I have no inside information about what the defence services have or haven’t done, and no inside information about the media. I’m neither a professional journalist nor a signatory to the Official Secrets Act. However, the idea that a D-Notice was issued to cover up a protest by a couple of hundred people about a Government bill seems utter crap.

D-Notices, which have been called DA-Notices since 1993, are controlled by the Defence, Press and Broadcasting Advisory Committee (DPBAC): they are not under the direct control of government. There are five government representatives on this committee, and 16 members of the media, nominated by bodies like the Press Association, Google, the BBC, and ITV. So for us to believe that a DA-Notice was used to cover up a protest, we must also believe that 16 members of the media – or, I guess, at least six members of the media to carry a majority on the committee – felt that this was appropriate action. Also, since DA-Notices are merely advisory, it must also be the case that not one journalist chose to break rank and shout to all and sundry about the most audacious UK government cover-up of a peaceful protest in history.

DA-Notices are very seldom used. Often, the existence of the DA-Notice itself is reported – these aren’t super injunctions. Back in 2009, the existence of a DA-Notice was extensively reported after Bob Quick accidentally flashed sensitive information to photographers when arriving at Downing Street. The photos were printed in many newspapers and shown extensively on news programmes, with the offending information blurred out and the DA-Notice cited as the reason. There was also discussion around DA-Notices and Wikileaks. So we must also believe that not only have media representatives voted for a DA-Notice to be implemented, but that journalists have also spontaneously agreed not to discuss the very existence of a surely controversial notice.

DA-Notices are so seldom used that in possibly the biggest temporary media blackout of recent years – when Prince Harry served in Afghanistan – a DA-Notice wasn’t issued, but merely a gentleman’s agreement by the press attempted (unsuccessfully) to ensure that the news wasn’t leaked in advance.

There are five standing types of DA-Notice, which relate to: the military; nuclear facilities; secure communications; sensitive installations; and security and intelligence services. I wonder which type of DA-Notice Dr No believes this protest falls under?

A quick Google search reveals that, in addition to Saturday’s relatively small NHS protest, a rally against climate change, an anti-workfare protest, a protest against the Assad regime in Syria, a protest against stop-and-search, and an anti-fur demo all took place in London on Saturday. I’m sure all feel that their protests were under-reported in the mainstream media.

Perhaps the media agreed to the issue of DA-Notices against all of these protests this weekend. Or perhaps it was felt that none of these protests was particularly newsworthy. Perhaps the protests were felt to be a little predictable – a restatement of a known position, rather than anything new. And I’d imagine that there were many complaints about perceived poor policing over the weekend, given the level of complaint against the police on any given day. Each incident in itself is unlikely to be newsworthy.

Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps there has been a cover-up and a media blackout about this protest. But that’s an extraordinary claim and, like Carl Sagan, it’ll take extraordinary evidence to convince me. Until that’s available, perhaps protestors should stick to the facts.

This post was filed under: Health, Media, News and Comment, Politics.

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Comments and responses

Comment from Julie

    15.11, 19/03/2012

Hi Simon,

The fuss about the NHS demo was that there was armed police at it, and riot police as well. I wouldn’t be so sceptical about the application of a D notice in this case. See Latent Existence for info and pictures on this.


Comment from Julie

    15.34, 19/03/2012

Also, on the day that the Health and Social Care Bill gets its third reading in the Lords, there is no report on this whatsoever on the BBC Health page and all health articles have been comment disabled. I’m going for conspiracy myself..

Comment from Gez Winstanley

    18.32, 19/03/2012

I really don’t know about the DA Notice and really hope it isn’t true, as that would be very sinister, even if some parties involved were convinced by “public safety” arguments (personally I would feel that the Bill itself is a much bigger theat to public safety than any protests).

Suppressing informed debate on this issue would, however, be in line with the Government’s actions on this bill to date, from lying about their intentions in the general election to disobeying Information Commissioner orders to publish the Risk Register.

No one seems to be disputing the arrivial of armed police at the central London protest, nor that they left their vans and were seen by the crowds to be carrying automatic weapons. However, it is claimed that they were from a diplomatic protection unit and got involved with the protest “by accident”.

I would argue that the arrival of armed police at a peaceful protest involving respected “pillars of the community” types such as doctors and nurses, when the demo is about a highly controversial bill that will touch the lives the everyone in the country, and two days before a critical vote on said bill, is highly newsworthy, especially when similar actions were held across the country on the same weekend. The lack of coverage in the mainstream media does seem to imply at least a “passive” conspiracy of silence.

Some links to stories about these other protests are below:

Comment from sjhoward (author of the post)

    21.34, 19/03/2012

Hi Julie,

Thanks for your comments!

I have no doubt that the government machine will have put pressure on media outlets re: the health and social care bill. But it’s a very big leap from pressure being applied to editors agreeing to a DA notice.

I’m afraid I’m just not convinced of the “conspiracy” argument!

Comment from Julie

    22.29, 19/03/2012

Something similar to this happened in 2007, Simon. 10 000+ junior doctors, including the Queen’s surgeons, marched on Parliament. There was some tv coverage on the midday bulletins and then it just disappeared from view. It was not the first item on any news programme and the next day it was as if it had never happened. It was said at that time that a DA notice had been issued. There are huge commercial interests in what’s happening with the Health and Social Care Bill and I think it’s quite possible that this has been done. If you had seen that picture of the policeman strolling about with a machine gun on the tv, think what your reaction would have been. This is Britain; we don’t do guns and this is totally un-British and totally against our culture. It’s a complete departure and marks a new and disturbing chapter in government.

Comment from sjhoward (author of the post)

    09.57, 20/03/2012

I assume you’re referring to this protest in 2007. Hence, you’re trying to convince me that a protest covered by the same level of media agreement as the current sites of nuclear weapons in the UK can be found in a simple Google search.

I don’t disagree that the protest was over-policed. My reaction to seeing a policeman strolling about with a machine gun at a peaceful protest would have been shock, just as it was when I saw, on television, armed police at peaceful student protests and peaceful Occupy protests. I, like you, think this is inappropriate. But it it’s far from unique to this protest.

I also think that the media coverage of the Health and Social Care Bill as a whole has been shocking. I’ve seen no coverage of the many vigils which took place last night across the country last night, but don’t assume that editors have agreed to a Defence Advisory Notice restricting coverage.

The idea that journalists, at home and internationally, have agreed to issue a Defence Advisory Notice without so much as a mention to their readers strikes me as absurd. It’s certainly unprecedented. Remember that editors couldn’t even agree on a DA-Notice when Prince Harry served in Afghanistan, when release of the information would have been a clear and present danger to our armed forces.

There are many vested interests around the Health and Social Care Bill – on both sides of the argument, of course. But I struggle to see, for example, why the Scott Trust would choose not to report the biggest coverup and most inappropriate use of defence protocols in years. Remember that DA-Notices are merely advisory, so even if one was issued, there is nothing to stop individual editors not complying.

I have absolutely no doubt that the Government will have brought pressure to bear on the media to stifle reporting of these events. But there are much, much better ways of doing this than a DA-Notice. I can absolutely see why a media outlet might choose the promise a future exclusive “leaked” story over reporting what might be seen as “yet another” NHS protest, for example. But I can’t for the life of me see why they would choose to agree between themselves not to cover a story on the clearly false pretence of it presenting a threat to national security.

Even if some newspapers have vested interests in the HSC Bill, I see no reason why all would agree.

Comment from sjhoward (author of the post)

    08.15, 21/03/2012

Hi Gez,

Just wanted to apologise for it taking so long for your comment to appear – it somehow got sucked into the Akismet spam filter, which I think has also stripped out your links. Sorry about that!

Comment from Julie

    16.20, 21/03/2012

Well, it’s mibbees aye and mibbees naw, sj. With regard to use and abuse of laws, don’t forget that Walter Wolfgang was held under Section 44 of the Prevention of Terrorism Act for shouting ‘nonsense’ and ‘that’s a lie’ at the Labour conference. Laws can creep. But whether it was a D notice or something else, the media was most definitely blacked out over the weekend on this bill and the level of policing at the Saturday march was way way over the top. There must have been a riot policeman for every protestor there. It is disturbing, and given the massive implications of the bill, the coverage has been unbelievably bad. I think it’s the end of the NHS as we know it; so do many others, and it’s passed with barely a whimper from the press.

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