Journalists urge MoD to end gag on special forces

Opening up: DA Notice ban on special forces is regarded as outdated

Journalists are hopeful the Ministry of Defence may relax its strict special forces reporting restrictions after complaints that the policy is curbing coverage of the conflict in Iraq.

The MoD’s policy that it “never comments” on special forces matters has been a long-standing thorn in the side of the media. It has been particularly highlighted during the war in Iraq because both the United States and Australia have more open information policies.

The DA-Notice committee was due to meet on Thursday evening to hear an update on the long-standing MoD review into its special forces public information policy.

The Defence, Press and Broadcasting Advisory Committee meets quarterly to discuss the Government defence-advisory notices (DA-notices) which provide guidance on reporting matters of public security.

It includes 13 representatives from the media and three from Government departments.

According to the minutes of its January meeting, the “credibility of both sides of the committee” was at stake over the MoD’s special forces information review.

It said: “US and Australian Special Forces operating alongside UKSF had a much more open PI (Public Information) policy than that of the MoD, which was even more restrictive now than it had been in 1996”.

The MoD was said to be making progress with its review and promised to provide a progress report at Thursday’s meeting.

Media members of the committee have been pressing the MoD to change its special forces secrecy policy.

Daily Mirror defence correspondent Tom Newton Dunn said: “The current policy enables the MoD to hide behind it on stories of public interest about the SAS.

“I recently did a story about the SAS picking up the wrong suspects in Iraq, they roughed them up and then released them the next day. Despite having it firmed up by excellent sources the MoD said they are not going to comment on that because it’s a special forces matter.

“What was irritating for me was the SAS get away with abusing prisoners and no-one is going to follow it up because they can’t stand it up and they don’t have my sources.

“The policy also means that the scoundrels of our profession can make up absolute rubbish about the SAS and not get it contradicted by the MoD.”

Hopes that the Government ban on discussing the special forces would be lifted were dealt a blow last month when Geoff Hoon had lunch with a group of Fleet Street defence correspondents.

When one reporter present told Hoon that a relaxation of the special forces information policy “would stop us printing a load of guff about the SAS”, Hoon is said to have replied: “you print guff anyway – there’s nothing that can ever be done about that”.

By Dominic Ponsford

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