The National:

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”.

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 April 21. “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 Gare Loch, 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.

READ MORE: UK commits to replacement of Trident with US technology

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 shadow defence spokesperson, Stewart McDonald, 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.

READ MORE: Ask your politicians how Trident is keeping us safe from harm now

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.