Ministers and MPs from all parts of the political spectrum have condemned Extinction Rebellion for blocking the delivery of newspapers across the UK on Saturday.
Four national newspapers, including the Sun and the Daily Mail, were missing from some newsagents’ shelves on Saturday morning after more than 100 environmental protesters targeted printing presses owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp on Friday evening.
The prime minister, Boris Johnson, said: “A free press is vital in holding the government and other powerful institutions to account on issues critical for the future of our country, including the fight against climate change. It is completely unacceptable to seek to limit the public’s access to news in this way.”
On Saturday morning, the Labour MP Dawn Butler tweeted “Bravo Extinction Rebellion”, but subsequently deleted it. The Labour party’s official line, which followed, read: “A free press is vital for our democracy. People have the right to read the newspapers they want. Stopping them from being distributed and printers from doing their jobs is wrong.”
Protesters used trucks and bamboo scaffolds to block roads outside the Newsprinters works at Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, and Knowsley, near Liverpool, on Friday night. The presses print the Sun, Times, Sun on Sunday and Sunday Times, as well as the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, and the London Evening Standard. Banners reading “Free The Truth” and “5 Crooks Control Our News” were hung on the site.
By Saturday morning, police said about 72 activists had been arrested. A blockade in Glasgow was cleared at around midnight with no arrests.
In a statement, Extinction Rebellion said the action was designed to disrupt and expose what it called a failure to adequately report on the climate emergency: “Our free press, society and democracy is under attack – from a failing government that lies to us consistently … 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. We need a free press but we do not have it. They have failed us.”
A former tabloid journalist, Steve Tooze, said he had joined the action at Broxbourne to support “one day with far less misinformation, division and hate”. Tooze, who said he had worked “for every one of these newspapers in the last 25 years”, had locked his arm into a concrete tube. “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,” he said. “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.”
But Ian Murray, executive director of the Society of Editors, said the action would be “laughable if it wasn’t so serious”.
“Everyone has the right to peacefully protest and make their voices heard: after all, that is what a free press is all about,” he said. “But it is not acceptable for those who wish only their voices to be heard to attempt to silence others.”
A spokesperson for Guardian News & Media, parent company of the Observer, said: “We fully support the right to protest – but we do not condone any action that restricts the public’s right to access journalism and buy whichever newspaper they choose.”
While Extinction Rebellion has largely enjoyed the support of David Attenborough, in an article on Saturday he said it was not “sensible politics” for environmental protesters to break the law. Attenborough, Britain’s most celebrated naturalist, praised the younger generation for their passion but said: “I don’t think it is sensible politics to break the law. If you are any good at all, some of your demands will be met and then you will be demanding people abide by those new laws. You can’t have it both ways.”
But his article, which highlighted the climate emergency, may not have been widely read – it was in one of the newspapers that Extinction Rebellion targeted, the Sun.