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Book about D-Notices gets D-Notice slapped on it

Retired officers' spat masks MoD coverup

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A controversial history of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) DA-Notice* Committee, the body which acts to suppress media reports which could damage national security, has been heavily edited - reportedly on the orders of the DA-Notice Committee itself.

The book in question is called Secrecy and the Media. It was written by Rear-Admiral Nick Wilkinson, secretary of the DA Committee from 1999 to 2004, and originally covered the history of the Committee right up until his retirement. It's due out next May.

However the Times reports today that the book - having been cleared by the Security Service (MI5), the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS/MI6), GCHQ, and the Foreign, Home and Cabinet Offices - ran into trouble when it hit the MoD.

Specifically, according to the Times, the book was harshly criticised by Wilkinson's successor at the DA Committee, Air Vice-Marshal Andrew Vallance. (The secretary of the committee is normally a retired senior military officer.) Vallance apparently argued that the book should be binned, not for spilling state secrets, but because it was "turgid" and poorly written.

If true, this would be highly uncharacteristic behaviour for the MoD, an organisation which publishes turgid prose by the ream every day of the week. On the other hand, the MoD is well known for suppressing anything which might embarrass it or its political masters.

Vallance's opinion of Secrecy and the Media does seem to be bad, however.

“It was awfully written," he told the Times. "I’ve read it twice and it was an agony to read. It’s turgid. One of the sentences in it was 130 words long. It’s just poor history.

“It would be ungentlemanly for me to say anything about an elderly official in the twilight of his brilliant career,” Wilkinson retorted, stingingly.

Cambridge historian Christopher Andrew, who is currently writing a history of MI5, was called in to referee the scuffling retired officers. He begged to differ with Vallance, saying the book was perfectly OK for style, structure and content.

The MoD remained unsatisfied, however, and requested that the book be cut short to stop at 1991. This rather suggests that the literary-merit argument, while perhaps not purposely intended as a smokescreen by Vallance himself, had effectively functioned as one - masking the MoD's wish to suppress all insider discussion of its relations with the media in the modern era.

In the end, a compromise was reached and the book will now run up to 1997 - missing out all the good stuff about 9/11, secret dossiers, Iraqi WMDs, procurement failures and the colossal long-running budget foulups which began at the MoD in the late '90s and are still paralysing it today.

There might also have been some good insights into the vicious new culture of secrecy and intensive news management at the Ministry, which has increased massively in the last few years following action by Geoff Hoon, defence minister from 1999-2005.

A lot of dirty work took place at the MoD in the Hoon years; and the former defence secretary is now back in the Cabinet. Mr Brown's need for allies has allowed Mr Hoon to recover after a well-merited demotion following the horrific MoD budget cockups of 2004, which saw 10 per cent of the Army infantry cut to save money even as the UK was fighting one large infantry war and about to enter another. And this took place, one should remember, against a background of rising defence budgets and large supplements from Treasury reserves.

One might very reasonably speculate, then, that other factors than a literary spat between two retired officers lay behind the MoD's desire to cut the last 5 chapters off Secrecy and the Media.

But not to worry. The missing years, we are assured, will be covered at some future point - when the present government and generation of officials have left power and can no longer be touched. That, indeed, is classic MoD behaviour.

The Times report is here. ®

Bootnote

*DA for Defence Advisory - the process is nowadays one of self-regulation by the press, not one of the military giving orders. The term "D-notice" is now technically obsolete.

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