Extinction Rebellion’s recent blockade of printing presses allowed the media to do what it does best. Talk about themselves. The next day’s Sunday Times led with the comments of those politicians who condemned the protest as an unacceptable attack on the free press. The Sun wryly noted on social media that that’s day paper had included a comment piece from David Attenborough calling for further action on the climate crisis.
The group blockaded printing presses owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. These churn out a variety of Murdoch-owned titles including The Sun, The Times, their Sunday equivalents as well as papers owned by different companies such as the Telegraph and Daily Mail. Extinction Rebellion had accused the titles of ‘failing to report on the climate and ecological emergency’ and ‘polluting national debate’ on other issues.
There is no doubt that there is more that could be done to draw attention to the climate crisis. However, this action seems to do more to distract than inspire. Is it going to make politicians focus more on green policies or allow them to slink away after condemning the illegal action? It reminds me of the tedious debates of just a few short months ago on Fawlty Towers, Gone With The Wind or the more recent BBC Proms discussion (which, admittedly, was whipped up by an article in The Sunday Times). Whilst politicians are consumed with grave discussions of the sins of Basil Fawlty, they escape discussion of racial inequalities in health, education and so much more.
Mr. Murdoch’s finances will not be hit by the one day of action -he survived months of blockades in the late 1980s- but local shopkeepers will have felt the pinch as they lost valuable sales. Will old Rupert even have been told of what happened? He was probably too busy chatting to Donald Trump, which he reportedly does weekly.
Now, I’m no subscriber to this idea of a woke (the worst word ever) cancel culture cracking down on dissenting opinions. However, those who called this protest an attack on free speech were correct. As soon as the climate crusaders launched their attacks on the papers having ‘polluted national debate’ on a myriad of issues, it demonstrated that there were larger grievances than just a dispute over the column inches dedicated to rising temperatures.
It’s fine to strongly disagree with the positions of these papers, and perhaps occasionally even agree, but blocking their delivery simply because you dislike the tone of their coverage is an egregious attack on free speech. Additionally, it displays an inward-looking quality to the climate movement. At this crucial juncture in the climate crisis, more people need to be included in the movement – not implicitly dismissed because they might dare to read Dan Wootton’s column.
Let’s not pretend that the Murdoch press is a shining beacon of light and hope in troubled times. The phone-hacking scandal was one of, if not the, biggest disgrace in British journalistic history – and was overwhelmingly uncovered at Murdoch papers. Many in Liverpool will rightly never forgive The Sun and those who deride the nature of the tabloid press will not become red-top converts by perusing a copy of the paper. And it’s probably not a good thing that the octogenarian Australian dominates so much of the UK media scene, notwithstanding his global assets which include Trump TV (also known as Fox News).
Murdoch is undisputedly, however, a media revolutionary and changed the way the press works – for better or for worse. He knows how to sell papers through his canny reading of the public mood, which is reflected in his various entities political coverage. The last time The Sun endorsed the party which lost the general election was February 1974. In the US Fox News effectively created Trump the politician with his weekly phone-ins before he became the Republican candidate. This is despite Murdoch’s personal distaste for Trump (formed during Murdoch’s time running his New York paper) and his own more liberal opinions on immigration, which contrast with his predominantly right wing views.
What The Sun‘s endorsements and his embracing of Trump tell us is that Murdoch often jumps on the bandwagon, rather than drives it. He likes to be close to power, as evidenced by his paper’s switch from supporting the Tories for the entirety of the Thatcher era followed by leaving John Major in the gutter to support Tony Blair’s Labour as they surged in the polls. Then as Gordon Brown’s administration floundered The Sun quickly began to support David Cameron. And of course, politicians will often welcome endorsements from newspapers – particularly the best selling one in the country.
There is much to say -and many have said it- about the relationship between politicians and the media. Yet the criticism of many of Murdoch’s papers is often ridiculously overblown, especially when Murdoch himself has very little involvement with the day-to-day running of the newsroom. Much of the quality journalism, particularly in The Times, alongside their frequent criticism of government policy, dispels the notion that they are simply ‘government propaganda.’
Over the last few days The Times has reported on rising infection rates in care homes, the shambolic state of the government testing programme and exclusively reported Geoffrey Cox’s criticism of his own government’s plans to override international law. Investigative reporting from The Sunday Times’ Insight team has previously revealed the endemic corruption at FIFA and more recently produced the widely shared investigation into the delay to lockdown. Both papers have also recently criticised the governments’s new ‘Rule of Six’ either through their own leader columns or allowing space for opinion columnists to do so. The new outlet Times Radio has given a platform to a wide range of opinions with reputable journalists such as John Pienaar and Aasmah Mir leading their programmes.
Many of the people who work for these outlets are met with vicious abuse on social media, despite their aim simply being to produce good-quality journalism, not further the mysteriously obscure Murdoch agenda. Our society would be poorer if these journalists were out of work.
Rupert Murdoch has proven himself to be unscrupulous, power-hungry, and at times law-breaking. Yet, at the same time his papers command a huge readership hence why he has been courted by British politicians for decades. However, when we engage in lazy criticism of his newspapers we do a disservice to the hundreds of journalists who work diligently for them and the millions of readers who consume their content. We need real action on climate change fast., I fear this won’t be achieved through illegal protests which alienate the public, hinder free expression and allow politicians to slide away from making any concrete commitments to change.