This is England '20: climate protests as "criminal attacks"

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As the sun rose on 5 September 2020, the roads leading from newspaper publication sites were blocked by environmental activist group, Extinction Rebellion, leaving delivery lorries stranded. There were no copies of the Times, the Sun, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, or the Financial Times decorating the newsstands that crisp autumnal morning.

Extinction Rebellion argued that their latest peaceful protest is justified, highlighting the UK media’s "failure to report on the climate & ecological emergency, and their consistent manipulation of truth to suit their own agendas".

From the upper echelons of power, no comment has been made on the root cause for the action, only on its supposed consequences. The Society of Editors executive director, Ian Murray, described the protest not only as “foolish”, but also “shutting down…an independent media”. Priti Patel labelled it “an attack on our free press, society, and democracy”; Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson gave similar condemnations.

An attack on society? Hardly. Neglecting to properly inform the public of an impending ecological crisis, at a time where effective change could still be realised, is a greater threat to society than blocking some papers for a few hours. I doubt a morning coffee without the drip-fed distraction from what’s really going on would cause as much harm as a flooded home, or a farmer’s failed wheat crop. Maybe I’m just young and naïve, but the notion that this protest threatens free, independent press and democracy is even harder to swallow.

Nearly 80% of the UK media is controlled by billionaires: The Barclay Brothers (The Telegraph and extensions), Viscount Rothemere (Daily Mail and extensions, Metro) and Rupert Murdoch (The Sun and The Times, and respective extensions). The Daily Mirror and The Express were owned until 2018 by Richard Desmond, the former porn baron infamously pictured in the twilight pushing Boris Johnson on a playground swing.

These papers launched one of the most vicious, coordinated media attacks ever seen in Britain on Jeremy Corbyn, moving beyond political to personal. That the Sun, the Daily Mail, the Telegraph, are politically biased is not news – all newspapers display bias, but not to such a uniform, excessive extent. To consider their systemic indoctrination of the British public into a pro-conservative, anti-immigrant electorate cannot, in good conscience, be labelled free, independent press. These are papers which bleat with indignation as asylum seekers are put up temporarily in four-star hotels at the “tax-payers expense”, but when that same taxpayers’ money is shared out among Tory friends under the guise of “PPE contract procurement”, they fall silent.

To reinforce the surrealism of the response to XR’s protest, only a day later the Council of Europe felt it needed to formally warn the UK government for “threatening press freedom”, resulting from the blacklisting of journalists from Declassified UK. The UK government now finds itself mentioned in the same conversations as the governments of Russia and Turkey regarding press freedoms.

Now, there is talk of XR being branded a ‘criminal organisation’. Is this the nation we are? Where peaceful protest aiming to draw attention to the greatest threat our Earth faces, and to highlight the negligence of our media of engaging us with it, is deemed criminal?

We are instructed to know that breaking the law in a “specific and limited” way is perfectly legal, but that peaceful protesting is not; that preventing billionaire Tory agendas from reaching the newspaper stands is an attack on free press, yet blacklisting journalists is not; that XR protestors are criminals, whilst government ministers who exploit the esteem of ‘democratic’ office to further their own financial interests are not.

This is England ‘20.

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