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 Saturday morning 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.
Sources have now confirmed that Priti Patel wants to take a “fresh look” at how XR is classified under law after a stunt Boris Johnson deemed “completely unacceptable”.
The review could lead to XR being treated as an organised crime group, sources said, as part of a clampdown on its activities, which 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, with the potential for police to be handed beefed-up powers to stop demonstrators entering designated areas outside such premises.
“It would be illegal to stop MPs going to vote or judges getting to court and it would also protect a free press,” a government source told PA.
It comes after more than 100 demonstrators used vehicles and bamboo lock-ons to block roads outside the Newsprinters works on Friday evening, with both protests continuing until Saturday afternoon.
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.
The Federation of Independent Retailers (NFRN) said the protests had hit home delivery operations, including for the “elderly and vulnerable”, with its members having to deal with “angry customers”.
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 Mr Murdoch, calling on him to “stop suppressing the truth about the climate crisis and profiting from the division your papers create”.
Responding to criticism from Ms 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.”
Culture secretary Oliver Dowden condemned XR's actions as “idiotic”, while Cabinet colleagues, including Matt Hancock and Robert Jenrick, urged people to buy a paper to support the industry, which has been badly hit by a decline in advertising revenue during the pandemic.
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...”
Police said no arrests were made after XR protesters held a demonstration near Motherwell aimed at disrupting the distribution of Saturday's Scottish Sun newspaper.
There was a large police presence in central London on Saturday as XR staged further protests.
Labour former shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, asked about the blockade, said direct action is a “legal tactic” and added it would be “ridiculous” for the government to reclassify Extinction Rebellion.
She told Sky News' Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “They're not criminals, they're protesters and activists in the tradition of the Suffragettes and the hunger marches of the 1930s.”
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