Muzzling sheep: Wikileaks bringing a new D-notice era for Australia?

Wikileaks rally

Liz Tynan and Will J Grant

Legendary British Labour foreign secretary Ernest Bevin probably didn’t say “why bother to muzzle sheep?” during a House of Commons debate in the 1940s on media censorship – there is no official record of him doing so – but the phrase still resonates with those concerned about the tensions between government and media.

Suddenly, the idea of media submission to the information controls set by government has new currency. D-notices, short for Defence Notices, are an antiquated system in which the government stakes out territory it claims as belonging exclusively to the realm of national security, and asks the media not to go there. They are voluntary agreements and are not enforceable in law. Britain has had D-notices since 1912 and still has them today (though now they are called DA-notices – the “A” stands for advisory). Australia had D-notices too, from 1952. In fact, technically we still do. Though the D-notice committee has not met since 1982, that may be about to change.

Are we on the brink of a new D-notice era in this country, as the Wikileaks juggernaut rolls on, spooking governments around the world? The system of voluntary media regulation now being proposed by Attorney-General Robert McClelland does not carry the old Cold War moniker but the name is bound to stick. Continue reading