XR printers blockade: How free is our free press?

Extinction Rebellion has been accused of attacks on democracy and the free press after blockading Murdoch-owned newspaper printing works as part of its Autumn rebellion, with Home Secretary Priti Patel threatening to reclassify the group as an “organised crime group”. But how free is the press targeted by XR for failing to accurately report the scale of the climate emergency? Alan Story reports

XR print works blockade
XR print works blockade

Image: Graeme Morris

XR blockading Murdoch-owned print works.

Alan Story

Home Secretary Priti Patel’s threat to categorise and investigate Extinction Rebellion (XR) as an “organised crime group” has been strongly condemned by a Green Party spokesperson.

Patel gave the warning, which could result in jail sentences for up to five years, after about 100 XR climate change activists delayed the delivery for some hours of more than 1.5 million Saturday newspapers from three Murdoch-owned print works. Prime Minister Boris Johnson strongly endorsed the stance of the most right-wing and authoritarian Home Secretary in some decades.

However, Shahrar Ali, Green Party home affairs spokesperson, said in a statement Monday that: “Patel may not like XR's tactics but her threat to criminalise them is disproportionate in the extreme. We must fight for the democratic right of all to demonstrate peacefully.”

XR said it undertook the unannounced and well-coordinated action on this strategic target because “we are in a [climate] emergency of unprecedented scale and the papers we have targeted are not reflecting the scale and urgency of what is happening to our planet.” Some have called the weekend blockade XR’s most effective action since the group was established in 2018.

Home Secretary Priti Patel
Home Secretary Priti Patel

A total of 80 climate activists were arrested at the two News Corp-owned Newsprinters print works. About 600 XR supporters in all have been arrested since XR kicked off its autumn climate emergency rebellion a week ago.

But the corporate media, joined by the Conservative government and Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, have all branded XR’s weekend blockade as “an attack on the free press” and a “dangerous threat” to democracy.

“A free press is the cornerstone of British society,” Patel began in an overheated Daily Mail opinion piece. “We must defend ourselves against this attack on capitalism itself, our way of life, and ultimately our freedom.”

Starmer was not far behind, also strongly condemning XR’s blockade of the huge Murdoch print works and stating that "the free press is the cornerstone of democracy and we must do all we can to protect it. Denying people the chance to read what they choose is wrong and does nothing to tackle climate change." Recently-elected Lib Dem leader Ed Davey also criticised XR’s tactics against a multinational that prints The Sun, Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail (as well as their Sunday editions) and the London Evening Standard.  

Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one

Johnson, a former Daily Telegraph columnist, took an identical “we’re-coming-after-you-eco-fanatics” approach as Patel.

But former Green Party MEP Molly Scott Cato said in a release that “we will not take lessons from a prime minister who has sought to evade media scrutiny and attempted to follow Trump in banning journalists who seek to hold him to account.”

“A genuinely free press means one where all views have open access. This is why the Green Party will campaign to restrict ownership so that no individual or company owns more than 20 per cent of a media market,” Scott Cato added. 

That is far from true today. In a press release, XR said that “our leaders have allowed the majority of our media to be amassed in the hands of five people with powerful vested interests and deep connections to fossil fuel industries.” XR called on Rupert Murdoch to “stop suppressing the truth about the climate crisis.”  

The overall quality of corporate media coverage is also under attack. Over this past weekend, a tweet from Greta Thunberg reminded us that “the UK Government has been formally warned for threatening press freedom by the Council of Europe, which monitors human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Europe.”

XR David Osland tweet

And while the corporate media and BBC regularly tell us what a fine and objective approach they take to news gathering and its dissemination, a comparative study in 2017 found that UK newspapers appear to be “the least trusted in Europe” by “a significant margin” according to research by the European Broadcasting Union.

Yet to even talk about a so-called “free press” can easily lead one down a misleading analytical blind alley. Sixty years ago, long-time US journalist A.J. Leibling came to the much-quoted conclusion that “freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”

“I am doing this for my children”

The XR weekend action was joined by a former tabloid journalist who wrote for more than 25 years for every newspaper whose delivery was blocked for some hours. He was also not a Johnsonian blow hard about the so-called “free press” in the UK. In a quite touching and insightful video available on YouTube, Steve Tooze, peering out in the dark and with his arm wedged in a concrete tube, said: “I am doing this for my children… I feel that as a former insider, [these newspapers] hold a huge amount of blame for what we’re fed today by not telling the public what is really happening… If it’s not in the newspapers, people don’t worry about it and, if people don’t worry about it, there’s no pressure on this government to treat this as the emergency it is.”

There is obvious dissent in Labour ranks over Starmer’s approach. Former shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott went into a television studio over the weekend to praise the XR activists “as protestors and activists in the tradition of the suffragettes and the hunger marches of the 1920s.”  

Progressive tax reformer Richard Murphy tweeted on 6 September that: “I would have opposed the actions of Extinction Rebellion yesterday if we had a free press. But we don’t.” Social media in general was abuzz.

There is also growing disquiet among, at least, more left-leaning Labour Party circles. They worry that confirmed Tory right-wingers such as Patel, Johnson, Michael Gove, and Dominic Rabb are simply “playing” Starmer in the current culture wars and daring him not to play along with – and indeed endorse – their authoritarian attacks on civil liberties and the right to protest.  

A “rag tag eco rabble” of fanatics

The response of the right-wing corporate press to XR’s blockade has been predictably over the top and inflammatory. The Sun reported in a 7 September editorial that “lonely OAPs who depend on newspapers will have had a miserable Saturday” and “one 95-year old Sun reader even took a nasty fall when checking why her favourite paper hasn’t arrived.”

Editions of The Sun and the Daily Mail on the same day were filled with headlines such as “Idiot anarchists”, “XR fiasco proves our cops are biased”, “Priti: I’ll change law to rein in Extinction fanatics”, and “Rebel bullies”, while the Daily Mail, in a two-page spread, did hatchet jobs on eight XR activists who were part of the “ragtag” bunch and “eco rabble” involved in the Friday night and Saturday morning actions. (We only purchased them so you did not have to.)

Not surprisingly, there was no self-assessment on how such newspapers have covered the critical climate change issue.

Meanwhile, there are legislative efforts underway to oppose the deepening climate crisis. Last week in Parliament Green MP Caroline Lucas introduced, with eleven co-sponsors, a Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill, which gained support from MPs from seven political parties.

And though the global growth of the climate emergency movement has been hindered, of course, by the global Covid-19 pandemic, we can be pretty confident it will expand in a ‘no going back’ spirit when it is safer to campaign. (Reminder: we in the UK have recently had more Covid-19 cases per day since days in May.)  

The corporate media props up the system 

But much more work is needed on and against the corporate media in this country, which was surely the point of last weekend’s XR blockade of newspapers owned by ‘the big five’.

The tasks ahead are immense. A recent three-part documentary called “The Rise of Murdoch Dynasty” exposed, at least partially, what we face. In short, don’t have high hopes that the Sun or the Daily Mail will one day wake up and smell the proverbial coffee of climate change.

And as Molly Scott Cato points out, even James Murdoch, Rupert’s son, agrees there is “a culture of denial” about the climate emergency at Murdoch-owned media. In Australia – and not only there – 'Murdochracy' controls the climate debate, an Aljazeera investigation concluded in January 2020.

Yet in at least one sense, it is mere child’s play to call out the right-wing TV channels and tabloids (without forgetting, of course, the Daily Telegraph broadsheet) and to chortle at some of their silly ‘the sky is falling’ headlines and their so-called ‘Middle England’ sensibilities.

In fact, challenging the ‘liberal media’, such as the Guardian and Channel 4, and so-called ‘balanced media’, such as the BBC, takes on increased importance. Several weeks ago Green World did a critique of a documentary on ‘liberal’ Channel 4 about the horrendous plague of locusts that is besieging Eastern Africa in 2020. Its film seemingly forgot to mention the cause; in all likelihood, it is global warming.

In his provocatively-titled 2014 book Blowing the Roof Off the Twenty-First Century: Media, Politics, and the Struggle for Post-Capitalist Democracy media analyst Robert McChesney extended his prescription for change beyond the liberal media alone:

‘Many liberals who wish to reform and humanize capitalism are uncomfortable with seemingly radical movements, and often work to distance themselves from them, lest respectable people in power cast a withering eye at them. “Shhh,” they say to people like me. “If we antagonize or scare those in power we will lose our seat at the table and not be able to win any reforms.” Yet these same liberal reformers often are dismayed at how they are politically ineffectual. Therein lies a great irony, because to enact significant reforms requires a mass movement (or the credible prospect of a mass movement) that does indeed threaten the powerful.’

Several things are beyond debate

There is certainly a debate to carry on about the tactics of XR. How effective are their direct action tactics? Do they sometimes backfire and what are the consequences of such mis-steps? As a question not only for XR but the wider environmental and green movement as well: what progress is being made in the fight against racism? Can the fight for climate justice be “beyond politics” as XR claims? And don’t XR statements about socialism, “the truth”, and how “we must move beyond ideology”, have a distinctly political ring to them?

But several things are really beyond debate among progressives. We confront a climate emergency. We should not laud the British press and media as “free” or “fair” as Patel and Starmer do. We should ensure we have proper legal protection to protest. And we should resolutely oppose any attempts by this Tory government to prosecute our brothers and sisters in Extinction Rebellion as an “organised crime group.”

Green Party spokesperson Shahrar Ali concludes: “The focus of intelligent direct action needs to be on winning over ever more people in this mass cause… direct action has shown itself to be a vital political instrument for the dispossessed of the past to help overcome their struggles and bring positive change." 

Alan Story, who is a former member of Extinction Rebellion in Sheffield, is a regular contributor to Green World and a member of the Green Party of England and Wales.