A war of words has erupted after Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab slammed Labour’s Diane Abbott this morning for defending Extinction Rebellion activists who blockaded newspaper printing presses on Friday.
Ms Abbott compared Extinction Rebellion to the Suffragettes and criticised the government’s plans to reclassify the activists as an organised crime gang.
Her comments come after a public outcry following XR action on Friday which saw protesters targeting Newsprinters printing works at Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, and Knowsley, near Liverpool, blocking the day’s newspapers from leaving the depots.
However, Mr Raab has criticised Ms Abbott and slammed XR’s actions.
He told Sky’s Sophy Ridge: ‘I’m astounded at Diane Abbott’s remarks. The idea that it is right to damage property or intervene with a free press in the name of progressive protest is, I think, perverse.
‘Actually, I think it is damaging to the cause of climate change.
‘I respect the right of peaceful protest but hijacking that with a militant agenda to disrupt the very heart of democratic debate, which is through a free media, is just totally wrong and we’re against it, and I think law enforcement action should be taken to preserve our wider freedoms, and they do include a free media.’
Ms Abbott earlier defended the protest, saying direct action is a ‘legal tactic’ and adding that it would be ‘ridiculous’ for the Government to reclassify Extinction Rebellion.
Ms Abbott told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday: ‘They’re not criminals, they’re protesters and activists in the tradition of the Suffragettes and the hunger marches of the 1930s.’
Following the stunt, Home Secretary Priti Patel said she wants to take a ‘fresh look’ at how XR is classified under law, while Boris Johnson deemed the act ‘completely unacceptable’.
A potential review could lead to XR being treated as an organised crime group, sources said, as part of a clampdown on its activities, which have included bringing cities across the UK to a standstill by forming human barriers along major roads, and by disrupting public transport.
Dominic Raab slammed Labour’s Diane Abbott for defending Extinction Rebellion activists who blockaded newspaper printing presses
Labour’s Diane Abbott defended the protest, saying direct action is a ‘legal tactic’ and adding that it would be ‘ridiculous’ for the Government to reclassify Extinction Rebellion
Extinction Rebellion protesters blockaded the entrance to Newsprinters in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, meaning some national newspapers did not reach stands today
Her words were not supported by Sir Ed Davey, leader of the Liberal Democrats, however.
He said Extinction Rebellion protesters were ‘shooting themselves in the foot’ following their blockade of newspaper printing presses on Friday evening.
Asked on Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme whether he agreed with Ms Abbott’s assessment that the demonstrations had been legitimate, he said: ‘No … I think we need to bring the country together to realise we have a climate emergency alongside the Covid health and economic emergency.
‘My concern with what we saw was that it actually divides people, it can undermine the message about the climate emergency.
‘I fear that when you damage the free press in particular, that is shooting yourself in the foot.
‘There was an interview with David Attenborough in one of those newspapers that didn’t get distributed – David Attenborough is the environmentalist par excellence, he has a lot to say about climate change and how we protect our environment.
‘I think stopping people reading David Attenborough is not a good message.’
Under additional proposals, Parliament, courts and the press could be given special status in regard to the key role they play in democracy, with the potential for police to be handed beefed-up powers to stop demonstrators entering designated areas outside such premises.
‘It would be illegal to stop MPs going to vote or judges getting to court and it would also protect a free press,’ a Government source said.
It comes after more than 100 demonstrators used vehicles and bamboo lock-ons to block roads outside the Newsprinters works on Friday evening, with both protests continuing until Saturday afternoon.
The blockade prevented delivery vans from leaving presses which publish the Rupert Murdoch-owned News Corp’s titles including The Sun, The Times, The Sun On Sunday and The Sunday Times.
Other publications including The Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Mail and Mail On Sunday were also affected.
The Federation of Independent Retailers (NFRN) said the protests had hit home delivery operations, including for the ‘elderly and vulnerable’, with its members having to deal with ‘angry customers’.
Merseyside Police said they had arrested 30 people, while Hertfordshire Police said they had taken 50 people into custody.
XR apologised to newsagents for the disruption but added it would not apologise to Mr Murdoch, calling on him to ‘stop suppressing the truth about the climate crisis and profiting from the division your papers create’.
Responding to criticism from Ms Patel that their actions were an ‘attack on our free press’, XR said: ‘Our free press, society and democracy is under attack – from a failing government that lies to us consistently, is becoming increasingly authoritarian, and is leading us towards 4 degrees of warming.’
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden condemned XR’s actions as ‘idiotic’, while Cabinet colleagues, including Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick, urged people to buy a paper to support the industry, which has been badly hit by a decline in advertising revenue during the pandemic.
Jo Stevens, Labour’s shadow culture secretary, said: ‘A free press is vital for our democracy. People have the right to read the newspapers they want.
More than 30 arrests have been made following the blockades. A second was set up in Knowsley, near Liverpool
‘Stopping them from being distributed and printers from doing their jobs is wrong.’
But in a now-deleted tweet, Labour MP Dawn Butler appeared to praise XR, writing: ‘Bravo £ExtinctionRebellion. Excellent work…’
Police said no arrests were made after XR protesters held a demonstration near Motherwell aimed at disrupting the distribution of Saturday’s Scottish Sun newspaper.
There was a large police presence in central London on Saturday as XR staged further protests.