For British Eyes Only? The DA-Notice System and Its Implications for U.S. Media Law

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The British government relies on two mechanisms to control the press: the Official Secrets Act, which criminalizes the dissemination of certain government information, and the DA-Notice System. The DA-Notice System, a regulatory framework that is legally unenforceable yet mostly followed, establishes organizing principles around which British journalists structure their reporting about national security. The DA-Notice System has surprisingly survived for over 100 years, coexisting alongside the thematically similar, substantively different, and at times contradictory Official Secrets Act. But recent changes in the geopolitical climate, data dumps by WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden, and a rapidly evolving media landscape threaten this coexistence.

This Note focuses on the operations and applications of the DA-Notice System, an underappreciated enforcement mechanism, against the backdrop of the Official Secrets Act, the linchpin of the United Kingdom’s information-controlling legislation. First, this Note argues that the DA-Notice System in its current form is ultimately unsustainable in the United Kingdom. Though the DA-Notice System theoretically benefits both the government and the media in its ability to supplement the Official Secrets Act, it is undermined by the U.K. government’s frequent resort to other legal measures—even in the face of compliance with the DA-Notice System. Along these lines, this Note recognizes the additional external factors facing the DA-Notice System that threaten its viability. Second, this Note maps the ways in which elements of a similar system might unofficially exist already in the United States, a country with fundamentally different press ideals. In doing so, this Note assesses the extent to which the increasingly contentious U.S. government-press relationship may stand to benefit from a further developed regulatory framework that learns from the strengths and weaknesses of the DA-Notice System.