Three panellists debated the methods used by journalists to report on matters of national security at the Goldsmiths Media Forum last night.
Chaired by Goldsmiths journalism lecturer Steve Boggan, the discussion between Brigadier Geoffrey Dodds, deputy-secretary for the Defence Security Media Advisory (DSMA) committee – formerly known as the D-notice committee, senior Guardian reporter Ian Cobain and Daily Mirror defence and security editor Chris Hughes centred on the difficulties that come with reporting on official secrecy.
Cobain and Hughes spoke at length about their experiences working with sensitive information and UK intelligence agencies, as well as the importance of establishing trust with classified sources.
Hughes spoke of going to Baghdad and Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, and his experience of trying to speak to ex-SAS, Special Forces and Intelligence officers stationed in these areas at the time.
“Trying to get someone who has no interest in talking to you, to talk to you about official secrets is very, very difficult,” he said.
However, Hughes did say that perseverance, and demonstrating trustworthiness, made sensitive sources more likely to speak to him in the field.
Cobain stressed the importance of the press in reporting on the state and intelligence agencies, calling on the example of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
“I believe that at times of perceived emergency, the media has a responsibility, not just to report on the threat, but to report on the way the state responds to the threat,” he explained.
“I would say that anybody who doesn’t understand the role that the media should have in holding authorities to account, particularly at a time of claimed emergency, perhaps doesn’t understand the role that the media plays in a modern democracy.”
Cobain said that while he too would have published the Snowden leaks, he may have been more selective in choosing which documents to release.
Dodds explained the inner workings of the DSMA committee, the purpose of which is to help journalists “avoid the inadvertent publications or broadcasting of information that would damage UK national security”.
He made clear the role of the DSMA committee was purely to advise on how to publish stories in such a way so as not to endanger lives, and that a DSMA notice carries no legal obligations, or threat of sanctions.
The Reporting on the Secret State Media Forum was coincidentally hosted the same day as a motion was passed in European Parliament allowing Snowden safe passage throughout EU member states, without the fear of extradition to the US.