The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) has brought in sweeping new rules intended to prevent military personnel from releasing information which shows the MoD in a bad light.
The new rules say that:
"Members of the Armed Forces and MOD Civil Servants must seek prior permission from [MoD media authorities] if they wish to communicate about defence via books, articles or academic papers; self-publish via a blog, podcast or other shared text, audio or video; take part in external questionnaires, polls, surveys or research projects, speak at conferences, private engagements or other events where the public or media may be present; or contribute to any online community or share information such as a bulletin board, wiki, online social network, or multi-player game.
"All contact with the news media on any topic relating to official defence matters must be referred to the appropriate [official] staff. This includes letters to newspapers, contributing to online debates, taking part in radio or TV programmes, or contact with the media at outside events such as conferences. The responsibility to comply with the Official Secrets Act lies with the individual."
The rules don't say anything new - it has always been a sacking offence for serving personnel and other MoD employees to contact the media or reveal information in public without authorisation from their line superiors. In the modern day it's a very rare line superior who would permit this without passing the matter up to the central media desk.
Having written this article while still serving, your correspondent was telephoned and threatened with dismissal by Navy PR in 2004 - too late, as the resignation letter was already in.
So there's nothing new here, really. The MoD says as much:
"These are not new rules. These or similar have been around for years... They have been updated this year to reflect the findings of the Hall report [into the recent Iran/captured sailors fiasco] and changes in communication technology...
"We want people to communicate what they do. But it must be properly authorised – by their boss and, if it is potentially newsworthy, by MOD centrally."
But, in fact, there has been nothing actually done about the Iran/sailors clusterfuck. No heads have rolled. The foolish decision to use anti-submarine frigates for dangerous inshore board-and-search work has been retrospectively OK'd in a classified report. And nobody at all has been held accountable for the frankly bizarre decision to let editors bribe young, stressed personnel into signing fairytales ghostwritten by tabloid hacks.
So this isn't about the Hall report. And it isn't about the rise of new media - that's been around forever now, and anyway the old rules covered it.
One ARRSE poster's summary seems incapable of improvement:
"This is a gag order pure and simple, poke it."
And an exceptionally stupid one, as it doen't actually give the MoD any more power than it already had: yet it seems sure to provoke a lot of negative coverage, and quite likely upset a lot of serving people to boot. The British forces' morale is famously resilient, but this isn't really the time to be chipping away at it. Forces people keep their mouths shut about real operational secrets, not because they're threatened with disciplinary procedures, but because they're loyal to their comrades. At some level, after all, they aren't afraid to die; they won't be scared by a new document out of Whitehall.
Meanwhile, leakers and whistle blowers will still be able to operate with impunity. Journalists will protect their sources, and in many cases could be overseas and not subject to British jurisdiction anyway. Soldiers will still be able to blog, post and upload - if necessary using untraceable connections, to be found in any internet cafe or open Wi-Fi box if nothing more skilful comes to hand. So this new diktat achieves nothing, while costing a lot in terms of goodwill and image.
You really have to wonder about the MoD media chiefs - are they maybe some kind of sabotage factor, deliberately introduced by people who don't like the forces? Or what? ®