A blockade of three newspaper printing plants by climate change protesters was an “attack on our free press”, the home secretary has claimed.
Priti Patel said the action by Extinction Rebellion (XR) activists was “completely unacceptable”, while other government ministers branded the protesters an “intolerant minority”.
Prime minister Boris Johnson also reacted angrily, warning that activists should not seek to “limit the public’s access to news in this way”.
Print runs for newspapers including The Sun, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Times were disrupted after dozens of activists blockaded factory gates late on Friday night and in the early hours on Saturday.
The activists accuse the newspapers of failing to report on the climate crisis, spreading climate denialism and “dehumanising marginalised groups”.
Seventy-two people were arrested at the printing presses in Hertfordshire, Merseyside, and North Lanarkshire. Newsagents reported late delivery of many newspapers, including missed delivery rounds.
More than 100 protesters were involved, blocking roads to the printing plants with vehicles, while individuals chained themselves to structures.
They brought banners with messages such as ”Free the truth” and “Refugees are welcome here”.
Ms Patel said: “This morning, people across the country will be prevented from reading their newspaper because of the actions of Extinction Rebellion. This attack on our free press, society and democracy is completely unacceptable.”
Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, said: “A free press matters to all of us who value a free society. They mustn’t be silenced by an intolerant minority.”
Labour’s shadow international trade secretary Emily Thornberry said the action was “very worrying” and said she didn’t know what the action was expected to achieve. Jo Stevens, Labour’s shadow culture secretary, said it was “wrong” to stop papers from being distributed and that “a free press is vital for our democracy”.
But reactions in the opposition party to the protest were mixed. As news of the action broke, MP Dawn Butler tweeted “Bravo Extinction Rebellion, excellent work” – though she later deleted the message.
Some of the newspapers blockaded have in the past published material questioning the case for action on climate change, as well as articles that deny climate change. Their owners point to positive coverage of other environmental matters.
XR protesters defended the action, arguing that the composition of the media undermined a “functioning democracy”. Activist Amanda Stanley, 23, from Liverpool, said: “The right-wing media have been spreading lies and creating divides for decades, from the Hillsborough disaster to the demonisation of asylum seekers, but the problem doesn’t end there.
“The entire institution of the media follows the same toxic rulebook, dehumanising marginalised groups and perpetuating inequality. It has become necessary to block lies in order to free the truth, thereby showing ordinary people that they are the ones with the power, not the elite minority that own the newspapers and run the country.”
Extinction Rebellion activist Gully Bujak, 27, added: “You cannot have a functioning democracy with a mainstream media that is ruled by a small, unrepresentative sect of society, who are in bed with politicians and the fossil fuel industry ... For a night we’re going to filter out the lies and take the power back. For a night we’re going to show the world that you are vulnerable, just like us.”
Responding to the home secretary’s comments, XR said in a statement: “We need a free press but we do not have it. They have failed us.
“Last night’s action has brought us one day with far less misinformation, division and hate. For one night ordinary people – terrified by the climate and ecological emergency that so much of our media is failing to report sufficiently – made these powerful and undemocratic corporations feel the vulnerability ordinary people live with every day.”
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