Andrew Vallance

“Secrecy is necessary in some cases,” said Air Vice-Marshal Andrew Vallance, secretary of the The Defence, Press & Broadcasting Advisory Commitee (DPBAC), an organisation which offers advice on issues of national security to the media through “DA-Notices”. It focuses on what Vallance described as the prevention of “inadvertent damage to national security”.

Vallance came to the University of Lincoln on Monday October 26th, to discuss the DPBAC and its function. “Its sole job is to offer advice only on the issues of national security. It doesn’t deal with scandal, it doesn’t deal with corruption, it doesn’t deal with politics. It just deals with national security,” he said.

However, the editors and journalists seeking the advice of the DPBAC are not obliged, or even legally forced, to take it: “The advice offered can be accepted, or rejected, in full or in part. There is no legal sanction on it, or any other form of sanction on it. The advice given to [editors or journalists] is given in complete confidentiality, and is not shared with anybody else unless [they] agree to it.”

The aim of the DPBAC, through advice and consensus, is to ensure that national security is not breached by the media. Vallance gave an example: “It should be self-evident that some things need to be kept secret for the sake of national security… if an operation is going to be launched in Afghanistan [and] the enemy knew about that the day before, then our soldiers involved in that… their lives are going to be at risk because of [the article].”

He said that the British view personal secrecy as “a birthright”.

“Remember all that fuss about data protection and liberty. Organisations exist to protect personal liberty… We regard personal secrecy as very much ‘our property’ and not to be parted with. Therefore, if you compare it with official secrecy [it] is widely suspected. It’s regarded as something outside of our control and needs to be carefully monitored.  You could almost summarise it by saying ‘private secrecy is good, public secrecy is bad’.”

He highlighted some concerns that society has with official secrecy. “It all comes down to our concerns about abuse and accountability. This is particularly so these days as, more and more, knowledge is power. The power of the internet, the power of the knowledge society, knowledge management; all that gives us power to shape our lives and the power to shape everybody else’s lives.

“The fear is that if knowledge is held back from us, all manner of bad things happen. It denies public information that they may need to know. Also, a shortage of information can lead to flawed judgement… If the government is holding back secrets from us, how do we hold them to account? How do we know that it’s in our interests that they’re holding back [this information]?”

The internet is also recognised as an obstacle in maintaining secrets for long periods of time. Vallance described the internet as an “unprecedented tool for information gathering and dissemination,” adding that “it’s very difficult these days, in the world of the blogosphere, to maintain secrets indefinitely.”

It’s a fine line trodden by the media. They have to remain a sturdy watchdog, whilst also being sensitive to national security concerns. Vallance said: “The media does have a dual responsibility. Yes, it’s the responsibility of the media to keep the government on its toes and to chase roads in high places. But in doing so, it shouldn’t put the lives of individual citizens or the security of some citizens at risk. In that context, whatever nation we’re talking about, the media has to work with the government to strike that balance.”

He denied that the DPBAC could be used as a tool for covering up awkward situations for officials. “It certainly doesn’t cover up in any way shape or form any official embarrassment or corruption, and or breaches of the law in public life. Quite often, the Armed Forces get upset about it. They come to me with a disciplinary issue, which in some way reflects badly on the regiment, and I say ‘I’m afraid they can publish that in whole’, because it’s got nothing to do with national security and everything to do with embarrassment.”

The DPBAC “defines the agreed boundaries, beyond which national security is likely to be damaged, within which it isn’t. It preserves the right of the UK media to report in the public interest, by avoiding the danger of inadvertently disclosing something which might damage national security,” according to Vallance.

“This system of preventing inadvertent damage to national security by the media is an imperfect system, but hey, it’s an imperfect world. 100% solutions are just not out there. It does foster consensus, only in this one unique area, between media and the government, where they work together and come to a joint decision.”