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Wednesday, 26 September, 2001, 00:46 GMT 01:46 UK
Editors warned over war speculation
Northern Alliance troops
Papers claimed the SAS were backing opposition troops
By BBC media correspondent Nick Higham

National newspaper editors and broadcasters have been asked to minimise speculation about future military action in case it puts British servicemen in danger.

The request comes as the government tries to damp down what it sees as over-the-top reporting of the threat to people living in Britain.

The plea to editors comes in a letter from Rear Admiral Nick Wilkinson.

He is the secretary of the D-Notice committee - the advisory committee which brings together government officials and senior journalists and alerts news organisations to military information whose publication could damage national security.

If Bin Laden's general hatred of the west is translated into 'I'll Nuke the UK' I think people will be understandably alarmed

Tony Blair
In the letter Admiral Wilkinson says that, as the next phase of military planning gets under way, informed speculation may become very close to the truth.

"It would be operationally helpful therefore, and a reassurance to those who may be going into action in the coming days or months, if editors could now minimise such speculation, whether by their own journalists or by retired military people, and if even greater care could be exercised in considering information which could be of use to the terrorists and their supporters."

The admiral says relatively little of what has so far been published was not already in the public domain, and the spirit of the advice in the D-Notices has largely been observed.

'Wild inaccuracies'

But the letter was apparently prompted partly by reports at the weekend that the SAS had already been deployed in Afghanistan and had exchanged fire with Taliban forces - reports which the admiral says were "wildly inaccurate" but could have been damaging.

The letter is not a formal D-Notice - there are only five of those, displayed on the committee's official website.

Osama Bin Laden in 1989
Papers claim Bin Laden poses nuclear threat
They cover in general terms reporting of topics like military operations and plans, codes and ciphers and secret installations and the home addresses of likely terrorist targets.

It's the third time in just under two years as secretary to the committee that the admiral has issued a letter to editors.

The previous two asked them to avoid stories about the deployment of SAS and other special forces in Kosovo and Sierra Leone ahead of sensitive and dangerous operations.

The BBC said its position was to avoid speculation that could endanger specific operations or the lives of British personnel.

Common sense

Piers Morgan, editor of the Mirror newspaper - which headlined the deployment of the SAS in Afghanistan last Friday - said his paper had deliberately kept its coverage vague.

"We've not said 'Look Mr Bin Laden, this is where the SAS are if you want to go and get them'. That's just common sense."

On Tuesday, the prime minister's official spokesman also asked the media to be responsible in the way they reported the crisis.

Tony Blair said: "This is a serious situation, people are understandably concerned, but I think it's important that reporting isn't on occasions too over the top.

Referring to Tuesday's Daily Express's headline "I'll Nuke Britain says evil Bin Laden", Mr Blair added:

"If Bin Laden's general hatred of the west is translated into 'I'll Nuke the UK' I think people will be understandably alarmed - whereas there is no evidence of a specific threat to the UK and there is no reason why people should not carry out their normal day-to-day goings on in the usual way."

However, Admiral Wilkinson said the two initiatives were not linked. He said he had not consulted Downing Street before issuing his letter.

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See also:

23 Sep 01 | UK
SAS 'clash with Taleban'
25 Sep 01 | Americas
Guide to military strength
24 Sep 01 | Americas
Analysis: Role of the elite troops
19 Sep 01 | UK
The SAS: Primed for action
24 Sep 01 | UK Politics
Blair builds support for action
24 Sep 01 | UK Politics
UK to see US battle plans
24 Sep 01 | Liberal Democrats
Kennedy cautions on 'war' talk
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