Boris Johnson condemns Extinction Rebellion’s newspaper protests as ‘completely unacceptable’

‘A free press is vital in holding the government to account,’ says prime minister

Peter Stubley
Saturday 05 September 2020 22:15 BST
Police and fire services at the protest outside Newsprinters printing works in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire.
Police and fire services at the protest outside Newsprinters printing works in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire. (PA)

Boris Johnson has condemned the blockade of newspaper printing plants by climate change protesters as “completely unacceptable”.

The prime minister criticised Extinction Rebellion (XR) after dozens of demonstrators disrupted overnight deliveries of The Sun, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Times.

Activists chained themselves to bamboo structures and used vans and a boat to obstruct the roads at Newsprinters printing works in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, and Knowsley, near Liverpool.

Police arrested a total of 80 people, including 30 people in Merseyside and 50 in Hertfordshire, where access was only fully restored on Saturday evening.

XR apologised to newsagents for the disruption, which left shelves empty in some parts of the country, but claimed “the right wing media is a barrier to the truth”. The group also called on Rupert Murdoch, the owner of The Sun and The Times, to ”stop suppressing the truth about the climate crisis and profiting from the division your papers create”.

The protests drew an angry response from home secretary Priti Patel, who said the blockade was “an attack on our free press, society and democracy”. Other ministers described the activists as “idiotic” and “an intolerant minority”.

Mr Johnson tweeted: “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.”

The blockade was also criticised by Jo Stevens, Labour’s shadow digital, culture, media and sports secretary, who 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.”

Meanwhile, Labour's shadow international trade secretary Emily Thornberry told Times Radio on Saturday morning: "This is very worrying and I don't really know what it is that is expected to be achieved and I know that for many older listeners it's very much part of their daily life, getting their paper delivered in the morning, and I just think it's wrong."

However Labour MP Dawn Butler appeared to praise XR in a quickly-deleted tweet reading: “Bravo ExtinctionRebellion. Excellent work...”

Newsprinters said the protests had prevented workers from doing their jobs and left newsagents facing a “financial penalty” because of the delays to deliveries.

The Federation of Independent Retailers (NFRN) said the protests had hit home delivery operations, including for the “elderly and vulnerable”, and that members were having to deal with “angry customers”.

Ian Murray, executive director of the Society of Editors, said: “Everyone has the right to peacefully protest and make their voices heard, after all that is what a free press is all about. But it is not acceptable for those who wish only their voices to be heard to attempt to silence others.”

A smaller protest near Motherwell, which aimed to disrupting the distribution of Saturday’s Scottish Sun newspaper, ended without any arrests. Three activists from Glasgow were pictured standing outside the gates holding a banner reading: “Free the Truth”.

XR staged several other events in central London on Saturday afternoon, including a “Citizens Assemble!” sit-in protest at Trafalgar Square and a five-a-side football match targeting Premier League sponsors Barclays over its financing of fossil fuels companies.

The Metropolitan Police said on Saturday evening they had reported 20 people for £10,000 fines over breaches to coronavirus regulations.

Officers also seized a 20ft model boat named after teenage activist Greta Thunberg in Kennington, south London, as it neared the end of its week-long journey from Brighton.

Additional reporting by agencies

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