As Extinction Rebellion (XR) shut down the print versions of major UK newspapers, an actual attack on the free press was taking place. It’s one which shows that the Tory government’s creeping authoritarianism is still alive and kicking – and growing more concerning by the day.
XR: shutting down the corporate press
The Canary reported that on Saturday 5 September, XR activists blocked some corporate newspaper printing presses. This resulted in the deliveries of newspapers like the Sun and Telegraph being delayed in parts of England. As The Canary wrote:
Under a banner reading ‘Free the truth’, XR tweeted that it was using the disruption to expose the newspapers’ ‘failure to report on the climate & ecological emergency, and their consistent manipulation of truth to suit their own agendas’.
MPs and people on social media responded differently to XR’s actions. Some people were supportive of the blockade:
Priti Patel says this is an attack on democracy. I say having 70% of our media in the control of 5 billionaires is an attack on democracy, and enables lies about climate change. #FreeTheTruth #StopPress https://t.co/N9YiOSNWaR
— Lorraine (@Lorrain92837111) September 5, 2020
— Matt (@MATTxLAW) September 5, 2020
But Tory government ministers and the Labour Party criticised XR:
Totally outrageous that Extinction Rebellion are trying to suppress free speech by blockading newspapers. They must be dealt with by the full force of the law.
— Matt Hancock (@MattHancock) September 5, 2020
NEW: Labour’s official position on Extinction Rebellion blocking printing of newspapers:
“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.”
— Paul Brand (@PaulBrandITV) September 5, 2020
The home secretary and prime minister seemed particularly rattled:
This morning people across the country will be prevented from reading their newspaper because of the actions of Extinction Rebellion.
This attack on our free press, society and democracy is completely unacceptable. https://t.co/3DfasjD6sS
— Priti Patel (@pritipatel) September 5, 2020
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.
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) September 5, 2020
So, with both Priti Patel and Boris Johnson on the war path, the news that came out on Sunday 6 September may be of little surprise.
could be treated as an organised crime group as part of a major crackdown on its activities that may also include new protections for MPs, judges and the press…
Whitehall sources said Boris Johnson and Priti Patel have asked officials to take a “fresh look” at how the group is classified under the law
A Whitehall source said one option under discussion was for XR to be viewed as an organised crime group, which could result in its members being policed primarily by the National Crime Agency – Britain’s FBI.
Under the 2015 Serious Crime Act an organised crime group ‘has at its purpose, or one of its purposes, the carrying on of criminal activities, and consists of three or more people who agree to act together to further that purpose’.
Labour’s former shadow home secretary Diane Abbott called the potential move by the government “ridiculous”:
It's been reported Extinction Rebellion may be reclassified as an organised crime group after blocking newspaper presses.
— Sophy Ridge on Sunday (@RidgeOnSunday) September 6, 2020
Whether or not you agree with XR’s action, tarring them with the “organised crime” brush seems wholly excessive and somewhat authoritarian. Moreover, MPs’ views that the group’s actions stifled the “free press” are also ridiculous.
The “free press”?
As writer Alex Tiffin reported, across the world just 24 companies own “the majority” of “the world’s most powerful” media outlets. And as Novara Media‘s Aaron Bastani tweeted, the “free” British press is hardly free from agenda and bias:
The whole 'free press' regarding Murdoch is so utterly stupid.
His purchase of Sunday Times, for instance, should have been referred to monopolies & mergers commission. Meanwhile Larry Lamb wrote Lady T speeches as Sun editor. Just brazen corruption.https://t.co/J5ijJcz4go
— Aaron Bastani (@AaronBastani) September 5, 2020
Nor has it ever been:
Lord Beaverbrook, responding to questions from the Royal Commission on the Press in 1947, said his intention in buying the Express more than three decades earlier had been, “to set up a propaganda paper and I have never departed from that purpose”.https://t.co/95w7X9MGUJ
— Aaron Bastani (@AaronBastani) September 5, 2020
But against the backdrop of the XR protests, the government is actively trying to stifle the actual ‘free’ press in the UK. And it reeks of yet more authoritarianism.
As The Canary previously reported, the independent media outlet Declassified UK recently broke a story. It was about the military police arresting a serving member of the army. They did this because he was protesting over the war in Yemen and the UK government’s involvement. But since then, the story has become about Declassified UK.
we no longer deal with your publication.
This attracted some attention from press monitoring groups, other independent organisations, and industry publications. The site’s editor and co-founder Mark Curtis told Press Gazette that Declassified UK was considering legal action against the MoD. On 4 September, the Council of Europe officially issued a “media freedom alert” over the situation. But this attempt by the UK government to sideline an independent, investigatory media outlet is nothing new.
Attacking the independents
uncovered the first suicide case directly linked to the UK Government’s welfare cuts
As well as revealing:
that the DWP had secretly investigated more than 60 deaths of benefit claimants since 2012, without publishing the findings or the more than 30 resulting recommendations for change.
Yet, in Pring’s case there was little outcry from press freedom organisations, nor any action from the Council of Europe.
So it seems that while Declassified UK is the latest victim, it’s not the only one in the ongoing war against independent media. But there’s a particularly concerning narrative building from the government. The push-back to label the corporate media as “free”, while stifling the actual freedom of independent outlets, is Orwellian levels of propaganda. That, coupled with the BBC‘s appalling record as a public service, impartial broadcaster, paints a worrying picture for the future of the press in the UK.
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