Journalists are generally reporting on intelligence responsibly by balancing the public interest of reporting against the consequences of disclosing sensitive information, but should not allow the pressures of 24-hour news to change that, the director-general of MI5 has said.
Speaking at the Society of Editors conference in Manchester, Jonathan Evans stressed that MI5 cannot know everything. He said it is ‘inevitable’that individuals known to the service will later participate in a terrorist attack.
‘It would be perverse for my service to avoid knowing about somebody for fear of being held to blame if they later become involved in an attack,’he said.
Later in his address he examined the relationship between the intelligence service and the media.
He expressed sympathy for the pressures facing jorunalists working in ‘the pressure-cooker of the 24-hour newsroom”.
‘So much as I might have gritted my teeth at some of the more colourful headlines, I am of course aware of what drives them,’he said.
‘But we must take particular care where there is the potential to compromise an operation, or worse, public safety. When this happens, generally due to a leak – the key consideration must be the consequences.
‘The first question must be whether the public interest in publication is greater than the possible consequences of, for example, risking the life of one of our agents who has given us sensitive informtion, or alerting terrorists that they are under observation.
‘I am, on the whole, impressed with the media’s sense of responsibility and its understanding of our concerns. And as the demand for news increases, we cannot afford to let this understanding fall away. Because there is no contract between the security and intelligence agencies and the media. There is no memorandum of understanding between us. It is a matter of trust.”
Evans was speaking on the record, although audio and video recording was not allowed. The question and answer session was off the record.
In a wide-ranging speech on the current terrorist threat to Britain, Evans said that the UK faces “the most immediate and acute peacetime threat in the 98-year history of my service.”
He said that the service knows about at least 2,000 people who pose a “direct threat to national security and public safety”.
He added later that the true figure, including people MI5 does not know about, could be double that.
Naming Russia and China particularly, he said: “A number of countries continue to devote considerable time and energy trying to steal our sensitive technology on civilian and military projects, and trying to obtain political and economic intelligence at our expense.”
He said there had been “no decrease” in Russian spying since the end of the Cold War and that his still takes up a significant amount of MI5’s time.