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UK Defense Staff Must Now Report Contact with Journalists — Even a Chat at a Party

New rules mean even academics, NGO workers or trade unionists must be avoided.
September 11, 2014, 6:23pm
Image via UK Ministry of Defense

If you're a soldier and you bump into an academic at a party, you'd better have the Ministry of Defense press office on speed dial: you're expected to contact them immediately and provide a written account of the conversation.

That's according to new guidelines from the UK MoD, which has this month issued strict controls on contact between the armed forces and journalists.

The new regulations, first reported by Britain's Press Gazette, also apply to any individuals known to have close links with the media - such as academics, trade unionists or think tanks.


The rules have emerged at the same time as it is revealed that plans are underway to reduce the number of embedded journalists on military operations and replace them with an in-house media team.

The new laws apply to members of the armed forces or MoD civilians, in both professional or social settings.

They state: "All contact with the media or communication in public by members of the Armed Forces and MoD civilians on defense topics must be authorized in advance."

Where unplanned contact is made between a member of the armed forces and a journalist they are instructed to "immediately" notify the press office "and provide a written account of the contact."

The document also states: "These rules still apply if individuals encounter: journalists or other members of the news media in a social setting (whether work-related or not); third party individuals with known links to the media, such as commentators, academics, representatives of industry, think-tanks or lobby groups, or former serving personnel with a media profile."

The rules also bar members of the armed forces from tweeting or updating Facebook about anything work-related without prior authorisation.

Breaking them would result in disciplinary action, and cadets and civilian volunteers must follow the new procedures too.

The fresh controls come at the same time as the MoD undergoes the most radical overhaul of its press office in 25 years.


The defense ministry plans to restrict the number of embedded reporters it allows on military operations and replace them with its own in-house media team, a former internal media operative told the Guardian.

Media operatives will post edited material online for syndication to news outlets, according to Christian Hill.

The shift will be funded with cuts to news-management teams in a clear shift in PR strategy.

The approach presents a tightening of the terms on contact between the MoD and journalists, which has always come with caveats.

Most MoD employees are prevented from speaking freely on the record by statutory provision such as the Official Secrets Act, and other acts may also apply, such as the Naval Discipline Act 1957.

Donald Campbell of Reprieve told VICE News: "We already live in a world where deadly operations are shrouded in unjustifiable secrecy - notably covert drone strikes, carried out by the CIA and US Special Forces with support from their allies in Britain, Germany and elsewhere. Any further moves towards further hiding military operations from the public eye are therefore deeply alarming.

"The British Government should be opening up about the part it has played in drone strikes, renditions and the other excesses of the 'War on Terror' - instead, it seems like their primary concern is restricting information and controlling the message."

An MoD spokesperson told VICE News: "This type of instruction has been in effect for over 15 years and is in place to ensure our personnel are protected when engaging with the media. This is no different to what you would find in a multinational business organization.

"We have recently updated our 2011 version to reflect internal reorganisations and the need to be mindful on social and digital channels."

Follow Ben Bryant on Twitter: @benbryant

Image via Flickr