The Guardian, Britain’s leading liberal newspaper with a global reputation for independent and critical journalism, has been successfully targeted by security agencies to neutralise its adversarial reporting of the ‘security state’, according to newly released documents and evidence from former and current Guardian journalists.
By Matt Kennard and Mark Curtis and cross-posted from The Daily Maverick.
The UK security services targeted The Guardian after the newspaper started publishing the contents of secret US government documents leaked by National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden in June 2013.
Snowden’s bombshell revelations continued for months and were the largest-ever leak of classified material covering the NSA and its UK equivalent, the Government Communications Headquarters. They revealed programmes of mass surveillance operated by both agencies.
According to minutes of meetings of the UK’s Defence and Security Media Advisory Committee, the revelations caused alarm in the British security services and Ministry of Defence.
“This event was very concerning because at the outset The Guardian avoided engaging with the [committee] before publishing the first tranche of information,” state minutes of a 7 November 2013 meeting at the MOD.
The DSMA Committee, more commonly known as the D-Notice Committee, is run by the MOD, where it meets every six months. A small number of journalists are also invited to sit on the committee. Its statedpurpose is to “prevent inadvertent public disclosure of information that would compromise UK military and intelligence operations”. It can issue “notices” to the media to encourage them not to publish certain information.
The committee is currently chaired by the MOD’s director-general of security policy Dominic Wilson, who was previously director of security and intelligence in the British Cabinet Office. Its secretary is Brigadier Geoffrey Dodds OBE, who describes himself as an “accomplished, senior ex-military commander with extensive experience of operational level leadership”.
The D-Notice system describes itself as voluntary, placing no obligations on the media to comply with any notice issued. This means there should have been no need for the Guardian to consult the MOD before publishing the Snowden documents.
Yet committee minutes note the secretary saying: “The Guardian was obliged to seek … advice under the terms of the DA notice code.” The minutes add: “This failure to seek advice was a key source of concern and considerable efforts had been made to address it.”
These “considerable efforts” included a D-Notice sent out by the committee on 7 June 2013 – the day after The Guardian published the first documents – to all major UK media editors, saying they should refrain from publishing information that would “jeopardise both national security and possibly UK personnel”. It was marked “private and confidential: not for publication, broadcast or use on social media”.
Clearly the committee did not want its issuing of the notice to be publicised, and it was nearly successful. Only the right-wing blog Guido Fawkes made it public.
At the time, according to the committee minutes, the “intelligence agencies in particular had continued to ask for more advisories [i.e. D-Notices] to be sent out”. Such D-Notices were clearly seen by the intelligence services not so much as a tool to advise the media but rather a way to threaten it not to publish further Snowden revelations.
One night, amidst the first Snowden stories being published, the D-Notice Committee’s then-secretary Air Vice-Marshal Andrew Vallance personally called Alan Rusbridger, then editor of The Guardian. Vallance “made clear his concern that The Guardian had failed to consult him in advance before telling the world”, according to a Guardian journalist who interviewed Rusbridger.
Later in the year, Prime Minister David Cameron again used the D-Notice system as a threat to the media.
“I don’t want to have to use injunctions or D-Notices or the other tougher measures,” he said in a statement to MPs. “I think it’s much better to appeal to newspapers’ sense of social responsibility. But if they don’t demonstrate some social responsibility it would be very difficult for government to stand back and not to act.”
The threats worked. The Press Gazette reported at the time that “The FT [Financial Times] and The Times did not mention it [the initial Snowden revelations] … and the Telegraph published only a short”. It continued by noting that only The Independent “followed up the substantive allegations”. It added, “The BBC has also chosen to largely ignore the story.”5
The Guardian, however, remained uncowed…