by Holly Barrow
On 5 September 2020, the global environmental movement, Extinction Rebellion, dominated headlines after blockading key printing sites in Merseyside and Hertfordshire, causing a significant disruption to the distribution of some of the UK’s leading national newspapers – including the Sun and The Times. Activists blocked exits to the print works, describing the protest as an attempt to hold these publications to account for their failure to report truthfully on the scale of the climate crisis and for ‘polluting national debate’ on a number of social issues, including migration.
Each of the newspapers affected by the blockade is owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who has been openly criticised on numerous occasions for his climate change denialism – not least due to his personal interests in the fossil fuel industry. By no coincidence, Murdoch’s newspapers have become renowned for being littered with rife climate skepticism, both across Australia and the UK.
Yet, despite the well-known murky ethics and questionable practices surrounding Murdoch’s publications, Extinction Rebellion’s protests were met with an onslaught of accusations by the likes of the Sun which claimed the organisation’s protests were ‘trying to destroy our greatest democratic principle: freedom of speech’. The Prime Minister himself echoed such sentiments via social media, suggesting that it is ‘completely unacceptable to seek to limit the public’s access to news in this way’ and that a free press is ‘vital’ in ‘holding the government and other powerful institutions to account.’
Only, this assertion neglects to acknowledge the inherent biases within the UK’s mainstream media and how it notably fails in its apparent duty to hold the powerful to account. The responses to Extinction Rebellion’s protests have revealed a deeply ingrained double standard regarding what is and is not considered ‘democratic’. In a recent article for the Guardian, George Monbiot wrote that Extinction Rebellion’s protests served to expose and fight against the ‘shallowness of our theatrical democracy’, and the ‘blatant capture of ours by the power of money’. It’s almost laughable, then, to witness those arguing that the movement’s protests threaten our way of life – that they attack the ‘freedom of the press’ that is considered so crucial to a functioning democracy – with zero irony. This glorified notion of the UK’s so-called ‘free press’ is a far cry from reality. As a matter of fact, it has long been in decline.
The increasing corporatisation of the media is what ought to be recognised as the real threat to press freedom. The UK’s leading newspapers are owned by a handful of billionaires and giant corporations. This drastically hinders the workings of an actual ‘free press’. From Murdoch to the Barclay brothers – 85-year-old British billionaire twins whose business empire spans from luxury hotels to budget retail – their deceitful dedication to protecting vested interests and setting political agendas through the UK’s leading publications has become well-established.
Former chief political commentator of the Telegraph, Peter Oborne, resigned from the paper after coming to recognise the unethical collusion between their editorial and commercial arms. The publication – owned by the aforementioned Barclay brothers – allegedly sought to bury criticisms against HSBC in 2013. In response, Oborne wrote in an article for OpenDemocracy: “HSBC, as one former Telegraph executive told me, is ‘the advertiser you literally cannot afford to offend.’” The media’s reliance on corporate advertising sees editors pandering to their whims.
What’s more, these billionaire-owners of the UK’s media and their publications are, unsurprisingly, right-leaning. The majority supported right-wing political parties in the 2019 general election, with a recent study by Loughborough University finding that the Labour Party was overwhelmingly targeted with negative coverage by national newspapers, while particular publications reserved positive stories almost exclusively for Johnson’s Conservative party. strong editorial support provided by the newspapers with the largest circulation (the Daily Mail and the Sun)
The political influence of the mainstream media is no new phenomenon. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair notoriously cosied-up to Murdoch in order to gain the backing of the Sun in the lead up to the 1997 general election – a move which many believe contributed to his landslide majority. In a recent BBC documentary on Murdoch’s media dynasty, former Sun deputy editor Neil Wallis told of how Murdoch played a crucial role in the paper’s drastic shift in support away from John Major’s Conservative party to Blair’s New Labour: “Rupert comes up and says ‘you’re getting this wrong. You’ve got this totally wrong. We are not just backing Tony Blair but we are going to back the Labour party and everything he does in this campaign 200%. You’ve got to get that right’.”
The relationship between Blair and Murdoch went on to be described as ‘incestuous’, with Murdoch’s decision to back him in 1997 allegedly arising as the two made a deal; Blair promised Murdoch he would not take the UK into the European currency without first having a referendum.
This relationship between media tycoons and leading politicians has been tirelessly scrutinised, with the 2012 Leveson inquiry revealing the extent of its impact, as editors admitted that Murdoch regularly interfered with content. Critics of Murdoch’s News Corp UK – which owns the Sun and The Times – have previously argued that ministers, chief constables, and regulators alike were unable to stand up to him due to the power of his company.
This enmeshing of media and commerce hardly screams the ‘pinnacle of democracy’ and press freedom. The insularity of the UK’s senior journalists only speaks further to a monolithic media – one which upholds the values, beliefs, and interests of a small section of society. A 2018 article by Jane Martinson described the UK media as ‘pale, male and posh’. Martinson – a British journalist and Professor of Financial Journalism at City University – broke down some extremely telling statistics regarding the background of some of the UK’s leading journalists: 51% are privately educated, as are 80% of editors. The journalism industry is 94% white with just 0.4% being Muslim. This inevitably plays a role in the way stories are reported, which stories are covered, and the interests of those reporting them.
Perhaps most embarrassingly, Johnson’s denouncement of Extinction Rebellion’s protests as a threat to Britain’s apparent free press is one riddled with hypocrisy. In December 2019, in the lead up to the general election, Johnson threatened to revoke Channel 4’s licence after they held a leaders’ debate on climate change – to which Johnson did not show. In his absence, Channel 4 placed a melting ice sculpture where Johnson would have stood; a symbol to mark the urgency of the crisis, with Johnson’s non-attendance speaking volumes. The Conservative party went on to launch a formal complaint with Ofcom, threatening to have Channel 4’s public broadcasting licence revoked.
Fast forward a few months and the Conservative government faced backlash again, this time for attempting to ban specific journalists – those most critical of the party – from attending a Downing Street briefing. Suffice to say, Johnson and the elite seem only to value the UK’s ‘free press’ when activists fight back against a heavily skewed media.
XR’s protests come at a time when the increased accessibility of social media helps to provide a necessary balance to the partisan traditional media. Twitter in particular has become key in challenging powerful political and social figures, succeeding where traditional media outlets often now fail. In July, Twitter fact-checked tweets made by Trump, after he incorrectly claimed that mail-in ballots would result in “a rigged election.” The platform then went on to flag any posts he had shared which included manipulated media.
The social media platform also caused a stir when it permanently banned the account of Katie Hopkins – notorious for espousing dangerous islamophobia and xenophobic rhetoric. Hopkins had previously been given a free pass to spout such views in the likes of the Sun. In refusing to provide a platform for such deeply hateful, divisive language, some – such as Trump – have denounced this as a form of censorship; a ‘policing of conservative voices’. However, this seems more like a balancing of power; no longer allowing for the dominant narrative to prevail unabated.