Extinction Rebellion: Print protesters convicted as judge rules Patel did not ‘improperly influence’ police

Judge says police ‘maintained operational independence’ despite numerous calls and messages during blockade

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Friday 16 July 2021 19:45 BST
Extinction Rebellion blocks News Corp Printworks in Broxbourne

A judge has convicted Extinction Rebellion protesters who blockaded a Rupert Murdoch-owned printing works, after finding that Priti Patel did not exert “improper influence” on police.

Defence barristers had argued that six demonstrators should be acquitted of highway obstruction because the home secretary had affected police decision-making and their balancing of conflicting human rights.

St Albans Magistrates’ Court heard that Ms Patel had personally contacted the chief constable of Hertfordshire Police, Charlie Hall, and Metropolitan Police commissioner Cressida Dick during the protest.

She was seeking “early intervention and removal of the protesters”, who were aiming to stop newspapers including The Sun and the Daily Mail being distributed over their reporting of the “climate crisis”.

The court was told of numerous phone calls and text messages between Ms Patel and Mr Hall, who told the gold commander for the protest of her interest, as well as emails from the Home Office to Hertfordshire Police asking for updates.

The home secretary told the Metropolitan Police she had been asked “by a number of people” about the protest, within an hour of it starting on 4 September.

As the protest continued, Mr Hall told commanders Ms Patel asked “whether removal of protesters could be expedited” but specialist officers said they could not speed up.

Giving her verdict on Friday, District Judge Sally Fudge said police “maintained their operational independence”.

“The conclusions in my view do not support the assertions made that this contact [from the home secretary] had any, or any improper, influence over the decision making,” she added.

The judge said the gold commander, assistant chief constable Owen Weatherill, “listened to the advice he was given on the ground, rather than bowing to any sense of political pressure, and maintained his operational independence”.

Mr Weatherill and other police officers told the court they were not influenced and did not feel any political pressure, although an internal review expressed concern about the level of political contact.

Extinction Rebellion said it was considering options for an appeal.

“We are astonished that Judge Fudge ruled there was no political interference in the police operation despite overwhelming evidence,” a spokesperson added. “XR will continue to demand that the press tell the truth about the climate and ecological emergency.”

The trial was paused because of a Supreme Court case that found protests can be a lawful excuse to commit highway obstruction last month.

District Judge Fudge said she considered the ruling, which was over the blockade of an arms fair in 2017 and found there “should be a certain degree of tolerance to disruption to ordinary life” for protests.

Protesters block access to the printing works in Broxbourne (Getty)

But she said the Broxbourne protest was “not a fair balance between the rights of the defendants to protest and and the rights of the business to operate”, as well as the right of the “general public to receive the news in their way of choosing”.

The court heard that Newsprinters lost at least £1m as a result of the protest, which prevented the distribution of newspapers to subscribers, wholesalers and shops.

Protesters had arrived at 10pm on 4 September, blocking the entrance to the printers using vans and bamboo structures.

They agreed to move their planned end time back from 11am to 10am the following day before being arrested, but the eventual police removal operation lasted until after midday.

Caspar Hughes, of Exeter, Elise Yarde, of Walthamstow, Mr Jones, of London, Laura Frandsen, of London, Charlotte Kirin, of Bury St Edmunds and Hazel Steson, of Bury St Edmonds, had denied highway obstruction.

Hughes, Yarde, Jones, Kirin and Stenson were given conditional discharges: if they do not commit further offences for 12 months no further action will be taken. They were each ordered to pay £150 costs and a mandatory surcharge of £22.

Frandsen, who has two previous convictions relating to protests, was fined £150 and ordered to pay £150 costs and a £34 surcharge.

District Judge Fudge told the defendants: “Clearly you felt this was something you were compelled to do because of your beliefs.

“My decision to convict you was because I took the view that the demonstration went too far, not because it was unlawful from the start.”

The case concerns the second group of defendants who charged with obstructing a highway at the protest.

The first group of six were convicted in May, after a separate trial that was not presented with evidence of Ms Patel’s lobbying.

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