No sooner, it seems, has the Government abandoned one set of repressive measures in the face of stout opposition from civil liberties campaigners and the House of Lords, than it casts around for another supposed weak spot in need of legislative reinforcement. It is less than a month since the Lords comprehensively defeated an amendment to the anti-terror Bill that would have permitted a 42-day period of detention without charge, and the Government quietly withdrew it. Yet, as we report today, there are now moves afoot to curb news reporting, by making statutory what was a voluntary system of restraint.
The idea, which comes from the high-powered Commons intelligence and security committee, is that news outlets should be prevented by law from reporting stories the Government judges to be against national security interests. The same committee is also proposing that the current voluntary system of DA-Notices, that warn editors on security grounds against publication of certain reports, should be extended to cover the reporting of some police operations.
As a newspaper, we could be expected to oppose more restrictions on media reporting. But we also understand the need, in particular cases, to be mindful of national security. What we do not see – at least as yet – is any evidence that the DA-Notice system is no longer working. It may seem a very British and slightly untidy system, but it leaves the last word with editors and it stops short of state censorship, which is what any statutory system would amount to.
That DA-Notices should be toughened up and applied also to some police operations would be a similarly malign development. The case thought to have precipitated such a demand is the 2007 plot to kidnap and behead a soldier in Birmingham. Details of the police operation were divulged prematurely, to the fury of all concerned. But the secrecy shrouding the operation was such that an inside tip-off seems the most plausible explanation.
Not for the first time, a sledgehammer seems to be being used to crack a relatively small nut. If ministers believe police leaks are a problem, then better police discipline is the answer, not wholesale censorship of the media.