Ministers are mulling new protections for “tenets of democracy” such as courts and the press after an environmental protest prevented UK newspapers from reaching the stands.
Some newsagents’ shelves were left empty on the morning of Saturday 5 September after Extinction Rebellion (XR) protesters targeted Newsprinters printing works at Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, and Knowsley, near Liverpool, blocking the day’s papers from leaving the depots.
Dear Newsagents, we are sorry for disruption caused to your business this morning. Dear Mr. Murdoch, we are absolutely not sorry for continuing to disrupt your agenda this morning. @rupertmurdoch #FreeTheTruth #ExtinctionRebellion #TellTheTruth pic.twitter.com/KU8msACDCv
— Extinction Rebellion UK 🌍 (@XRebellionUK) September 5, 2020
Sources have now confirmed to the PA news agency that home secretary Priti Patel wants to take a “fresh look” at how XR is classified under law after the direct action.
Clampdown on XR activities
The review could lead to XR being treated as an organised crime group, sources said, as part of a clampdown on its activities. These have included bringing cities across the UK to a standstill, by forming human barriers along major roads and by disrupting public transport.
Under additional proposals, parliament, courts and the press could be given special status in regard to the key role they play in democracy. There’s the potential for police to be handed beefed-up powers to stop protesters entering designated areas outside such premises. A government source told PA:
It would be illegal to stop MPs going to vote or judges getting to court and it would also protect a free press.
It comes after more than 100 demonstrators used vehicles and bamboo lock-ons to block roads outside the Newsprinters works on Friday 4 September. Both protests continued until Saturday afternoon.
“Our free press, society and democracy is under attack”
The blockade prevented delivery vans from leaving presses which publish the Rupert Murdoch-owned News Corp’s titles including the Sun, the Times, the Sun On Sunday and the Sunday Times, as well as the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Mail and Mail On Sunday.
Merseyside Police said they had arrested 30 people, while Hertfordshire Police said they had taken 50 people into custody.
XR apologised to newsagents for the disruption but added it would not apologise to Murdoch. The group called on him to “stop suppressing the truth about the climate crisis and profiting from the division your papers create”.
Responding to criticism from Patel that their actions were an “attack on our free press”, XR said:
Our free press, society and democracy is under attack – from a failing government that lies to us consistently, is becoming increasingly authoritarian, and is leading us towards 4 degrees of warming.
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
Jo Stevens, Labour’s shadow culture secretary, said:
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.
But in a now-deleted tweet, Labour MP Dawn Butler appeared to praise XR, writing:
Bravo #ExtinctionRebellion. Excellent work…
There was a large police presence in central London on 5 September as XR staged further protests.
Fund our Investigations Unit
You can help us investigate corruption, expose injustice and uncover the truth.
As one of the only independent investigations units in the country, we work for you – but we need your help to keep going. We need to raise £10,000 to continue our groundbreaking investigations. Can you chip in?