The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has banned its military and civilian staff from speaking publicly about Trident nuclear weapons in Scotland.
All members of the armed forces and MoD civil servants have been instructed not make any public comment, or have any contact with the media, on “contentious topics” such as “Trident/Successor” and “Scotland and Defence”.
The instructions have been condemned as a “gagging order worthy of a dictatorship” by campaigners. They have also been criticised by the Scottish National Party as “an infringement too far”. [I trust the SNP took into account the fact that they themselves have censored, banned and boycotted The Dumbarton Democrat. Editor.]
But the MoD warned that leaks could “damage” the ministry, and security breaches could “cost lives”. The guidance was “similar” to that given internally by other government departments, it said.
The MoD updated its online instruction notice to staff on public communications on 21 April. “All contact with the media or communication in public by members of the armed forces and MoD civilians where this relates to defence or government business must be authorised in advance,” it said.
The notice covered all forms of public engagement including social media posts, emails, speeches and talking to journalists. It included the publication of any “text, audio, still images, video or other content in any medium available outside government.”
The notice stressed that any public statements on “high-profile topics and contentious issues” must be cleared by the MoD’s directorate of defence communications. The MoD listed 11 “contentious topics”, noting that they were “not exhaustive”.
One such topic was “Trident/Successor”, while another was “Scotland and Defence”. Other contentious issues on the list included “EU Negotiation”, “Spending Reviews”, “Reductions in service and civilian personnel” and “Estates/Basing Strategy”.
UK nuclear weapons are stored at the Royal Naval Armaments Depot at Coulport on Loch Long. They arm Trident missiles carried by four nuclear-powered submarines from the nearby Faslane naval base on the Gareloch, near Helensburgh.
The missiles and submarines are due to be replaced on the Clyde in the 2030s, despite opposition from the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament. In March The Ferret revealed that Faslane is planning to increase discharges of radioactive waste in the Clyde by up to 50 times.
The MoD instruction notice said: “Unauthorised disclosure or leaking of information may cause damage to the department and the single services and corrodes the trust between ministers, the armed forces and the civil service.”
It warned that disciplinary action could be taken against leakers. “Security breaches have the potential to cost lives and seriously undermine our operational military capability,” it added.
‘Gagging order’ on talking about Trident
The MoD insisted, however, that it had a “policy of openness” about its activities. “It is important that the armed forces and MoD are able to explain their roles and government policies and decisions relating to defence and personnel are encouraged to engage with the public about what they do,” said the notice.
“However, such contact must be properly authorised to ensure that it is appropriate and worthwhile, as well as to protect individuals against possible misreporting. Personnel must exercise honesty and not undertake any activity which might call into question their political impartiality or service or departmental reputation.”
The Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament attacked the MoD for stifling discussion. “The MoD guidance reads like a gagging order worthy of a dictatorship,” said campaign chair, Lynn Jamieson.
“It actively discourages informed public debate about the future of nuclear weapons and their removal from Scotland.”
Jane Tallents, from the disarmament campaign Trident Ploughshares, urged those with real worries to flout the MoD’s ban. “We are always told that we need nuclear weapons to defend our democracy but it seems that having them leads to more and more restrictions on our freedom,” she said.
“Now all navy personnel have been gagged and genuine concerns about operational matters or waste of money can’t be raised. Hopefully some brave whistleblowers will ignore this.”
The SNP’s defence spokesperson, Stewart McDonald MP, accepted that there were “sensitivities” on what could be said by the armed forces. But he argued that the UK had “some of the most restrictive rules on media engagement in NATO and Europe”.
He accused the MoD of failing to ensure the right balance. “It is important that there is enough clarity so as to not render the rules meaningless,” he said.
“Simply telling folk they can’t discuss ‘Scotland and defence’ is so vague that it can only be taken to be an infringement too far.”
McDonald highlighted restrictions on talking about funding cutbacks. If that meant that members of the armed forces were prevented from discussing the impacts of staff reductions then it was also “a step too far”, he added.
He called for a “fundamental rethink” on how the armed forces raised concerns. “We should have an armed forces representative body similar to that of the Police Federation,” he said.
“If it can work in countries like Denmark then there is no good reason why it cannot work here.”
MoD curbs on public discussion were also criticised by Rob Forsyth, a nuclear submarine commander with the Royal Navy in the 1970s who now opposes Trident. “The requirement for all media contact by service personnel to be pre-screened by the MoD robs what they say of spontaneity and real value,” he told The Ferret.
“It suggests that the MoD doesn’t trust its people to speak, particularly on issues as contentious as Scotland and Trident. This begs the question – why not?”
The Ministry of Defence argued that its instruction notice was “similar to other internal government media guidance”. It originally dated from 2008 and there had been “no real changes in 12 years”, it said.
The Daily Record reported in 2014 that the MoD had launched a “media crackdown to gag staff” after a former Army reservist questioned military intervention in Afghanistan. A report in 2007 said that members of armed forces should not be paid by the media after two sailors held captive in Iran sold their stories.
The Trident whistleblower who went on the run
In May 2015 the Sunday Herald revealed that a nuclear submariner, William McNeilly, went on the run from the Royal Navy after claiming that Trident submarines based on the Clyde were “a disaster waiting to happen” because they were were plagued by safety blunders and security lapses.
He alleged that nuclear weapons were vulnerable to a terrorist attack that “would kill our people and destroy our land” and that infiltrators had “the perfect opportunity to send nuclear warheads crashing down on the UK”.
He said he had been on patrol with HMS Victorious, which is usually armed with Trident missiles, for four months in 2015.
McNeilly wrote an 18-page report listing 30 alleged safety and security flaws on Trident submarines. They included failures testing whether missiles could be safely launched, burning toilet rolls starting a fire in a missile compartment, and security passes and bags going unchecked.
“We are so close to a nuclear disaster it is shocking, and yet everybody is accepting the risk to the public,” he said. “If we don’t act now lives could be lost for generations. If change isn’t made, a nuclear catastrophe almost certainly will happen.”
McNeilly handed himself over to the police at Edinburgh airport, the day after the Sunday Herald broke the story. In June 2015 he said he had been dishonourably discharged from the Royal Navy to protect its public image.
He attacked naval spin doctors for downplaying his allegations. “It is shocking that some people in a military force can be more concerned about public image than public safety,” he said.
The Royal Navy initially described McNeilly’s dossier as “subjective and unsubstantiated”. An internal inquiry subsequently dismissed his allegations as “factually incorrect or the result of misunderstanding or partial understanding”.
The defence secretary at the time, Michael Fallon, said: “Neither the operational effectiveness of Trident nor the safety of our submariners or members of the public have been compromised.”
The Royal Navy pointed out in 2015 that when individuals showed a willingness to breach trust, ignored opportunities to voice concerns through the chain of command and declared “beliefs incompatible with service employment”, their future employment had to be considered.
“We can confirm that Able Seaman McNeilly has left the naval service the details of which are a matter for the individual and his employer,” said a naval spokeswoman. “Throughout the process he was afforded the duty of care that we give all our personnel, as was his family.”
Cover photo thanks to Ministry of Defence. Photo of William McNeilly thanks to him. This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.