Extinction Rebellion blockades a News Corp printing plant, with activists lashed to bamboo frames. Photo: AFP / Tom Oldham / Extinction Rebellion handout

Climate change activists pushed the limits of freedom to protest in the UK on Saturday as they forced a halt to the printing of major national newspapers.

In what was clearly a carefully planned action, members of activist group Extinction Rebellion simultaneously blocked access to printing presses owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp at three locations nationwide.  

The activists, who unfurled banners reading “Free the Truth,” allege that News Corp papers do not adequately address climate change.

As a result, the widely read Murdoch titles The Sun, The Times, The Sun on Sunday, The Sunday Times and The Scottish Sun were not distributed. Other newspapers that use the same presses, but are not Murdoch outlets – The Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph, Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday and London Evening Standard – also suffered.

What unites the targeted papers is that they are all right-wing publications.

Seventy seven activists – who had deployed some crafty tactics that baffled the police, but who protested without violence – were subsequently charged with obstruction and aggravated trespass.

Outsized Sunday newspapers, packed with magazines and supplements, are a treasured tradition in many British homes. This weekend, readers across the country were unable to acquire them.

In response – prioritizing principle over commercialism – some titles, such as the Telegraph, temporarily dropped their online paywalls, allowing free access to their websites so readers could access their weekend journalism.

Battle lines

Critics of the activists, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson and editors of the affected titles, heaped opprobrium upon the protesters. By their definition, the brouhaha was an assault upon freedom of the press.

For Extinction Rebellion, the ends justified the means.

“We targeted the billionaire-owned media because they are not responding to the scale and the urgency of the climate and ecological crisis and the main reason for this is that our press is in the hands of the powerful who have vested interests, who are set on dividing us and are in the pockets of the fossil fuel industry,” the group said on its website.

“A free press is about speaking truth to power, but how can we do this when the press is owned by a powerful few?”

They may have a legitimate point regarding News Corp’s position on climate change.

No less a player than Rupert Murdoch’s son, James, has left his father’s group due to his disagreement with his father’s stance on the issue.

Big questions

Overall, the situation poses questions that cross the barriers separating ethics, law and politics.

Similar questions were raised during the mass protests that wracked Hong Kong for months prior to Beijing’s deployment of a new and powerful National Security Law in the territory. Meanwhile, in another Anglosphere democracy, they are being posed amid the current rash of demonstrations shaking both US society and its body politic.

What are the limits to free expression and protest? Do protesters with a legitimate grievance have a right to inconvenience the public, block thoroughfares and disrupt commercial activities? And what defines a “legitimate” grievance?

Climate change is certainly an issue. And activists certainly have the right to counter editorial stances on the matter.

Whether activists have the right to disrupt the operations of media they disagree with is far more questionable.

And let us be clear: Media do take editorial stances. While standards of objectivity should always be followed in reporting, the view of a paper’s leadership is reflected in its editorial pages and, to some extent, in its choice of coverage and content.

Diverse opinion, free info

Still, this is legitimate. In a democracy, a multiplicity of views is natural and normal. Media both inform and reflect these views, while holding those in power to account. This is why free media are a cornerstone of democracy.

Equally legitimately, people may differ with the editorial stance of any given media outlet.

However, just as there is a multiplicity of views, so, too, is there a multiplicity of media outlets. If one does not like a newspaper’s coverage or editorial stance – fine. One is free to exercise one’s freedom of choice as a consumer and read a different newspaper.

What is not fine or reasonable is preventing others from accessing specific media. That assault on freedom of choice and of open information crosses a bright red line.

Extinction Rebellion is to be applauded for the non-violence of its protest tactics. But in terms of Extinction Rebellion’s strategies, the suppression of media, or the restriction of access to it, is not the activity of democrats.

It is the action of fascists.

This is most particularly the case today, for residents of democracies live in a blessed era. They are legally and technologically empowered to use multiple channels to air their views, raise grievances and counter mainstream narratives.

In the UK, anyone is free to publish content online – a distribution net that is as open, free, fair and borderless as any that has ever existed.

Individuals can make cases, air grievances and promote causes on social media. As regards mainstream media, anyone can comment directly on articles on news websites and can contact reporters and desks to distribute reports, analyses and press releases.   

Moreover, the UK is home to a responsive press complaints commission. Issues of media inaccuracy and bias can be raised by the public.

And beyond the media space, the UK is a jurisdiction that permits individuals and groups to legally protest and make their cases in public spaces.

In other words, there are multiple checks and balances on mainstream media, as well as mechanisms that have democratized information dissemination and enabled feedback. In this agreeable circumstance, the case for suppression of mainstream media (if there ever was one) has evaporated.

The limits of protest

Partisans have every right to make their cases rationally, legally and publicly. Partisans have no right to prevent others from accessing information or media simply because it is at odds with their views.  

A liberal democracy is an agora where debate blossoms. If consensus cannot be reached, opposed parties must fall back upon a foundational principled of civilized society: “Let us agree to disagree.”

In sum, Extinction Rebellion has a cause, and a right to publicize their cause.  But the cause is countering climate change, not overseeing, censoring or preventing the publication of media.

On the latter front, they need to cease and desist.

Andrew Salmon is Northeast Asia editor of Asia Times.