On Saturday morning, Extinction Rebellion (XR) blockaded three printing works owned by Rupert Murdoch, delaying the distribution of several national newspapers. Activists blocked roads at the sites in Hertfordshire, Merseyside and North Lanarkshire. The action affected Murdoch-owned News Corp titles the Sun, Times, Sun on Sunday and Sunday Times, as well as the Daily and Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, and the London Evening Standard.
As stated on its website, “Extinction Rebellion is a politically non-partisan international movement that uses non-violent direct action to persuade governments to act justly on the Climate and Ecological Emergency.” Its three demands in the UK are:
“1. Government must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, working with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change.
“2. Government must act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025.
“3. Government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice.”
The government was quick to condemn the action, and the official Labour response followed suit.
This morning people across the country will be prevented from reading their newspaper because of the actions of Extinction Rebellion.— Priti Patel (@pritipatel) September 5, 2020
This attack on our free press, society and democracy is completely unacceptable. https://t.co/3DfasjD6sS
However, some Labour backbenchers were supportive of XR.
5 billionaires own the majority of British newspapers, this is not free plural press it’s monopoly control that hinders free press.— Lloyd Russell-Moyle MP🌹🇪🇺🏳️🌈 (@lloyd_rm) September 7, 2020
Whether you agree with the tactics of @XRebellionUK they are right to highlight the concentration of media & their appalling climate change record pic.twitter.com/xQ7VdaSqyk
Much of the discussion centred around the question of a free press, threatened, according to the Home Secretary, by XR’s actions. However, others questioned just how “free” it is when, as Lloyd Russell-Moyle MP pointed out, “five white billionaire men own the vast majority of papers in our country”. According to a 2019 report by the Media Reform Coalition just three companies own 83% of the UK market. XR said “A free press is about speaking truth to power, but how can we do this when the press is owned by a powerful few?” and pointed to a media which is too close to the fossil fuel industry.
Murdoch describes himself as a climate sceptic and his media outlets reflect that, with suggestions that the recent Australian wildfires were linked to climate change dismissed by some of his columnists as “hysterical”. News Corp’s coverage of the issue attracted criticism from his son James. This is the context in which XR’s action against against corporate media is being played out.
The climate and ecological emergency is the most urgent and overriding issue facing humanity. It is an issue of survival, an existential threat – the existential threat. Each of us has a contribution to make, but we cannot succeed without drastic action at corporate and government level.
Extinction Rebellion has been effective at keeping the emergency in the limelight and making corporations and governments sit up and take notice. It is keeping us all focused on the urgent task ahead.