Following Extinction Rebellion protests at a Murdoch printers in Hertfordshire, the freedom of the British press has once again become a dominant topic for debate. But does a one-day protest at a newspaper warehouse really impede on press freedom nationally?
It is of course completely right that the people of the United Kingdom enjoy a free press – people can publish whatever they want within sensible bounds (for example libel, incitement to commit crimes and particularly severe racism are not allowed). But having the right to do something and the means to do it are very different. All 66 million of us have the right to set up our own national newspapers if we desired, but to create something like that requires millions upon millions of pounds, so really this is only something very few people can do. This seems to make logical sense, that just because you have the legal right to take some kind of action it does not mean you should be provided with the means to do so on the largest scale.
According to the government, that is not how the right to press freedom should apply to Rupert Murdoch. When protestors blockaded the road to his main printers in England, the government were outraged, declaring it to be an attack on free speech and democracy in this country. However, I believe Murdoch’s legal rights were not infringed – he could have used a different printer if he had one available. The protest, unlike many other Extinction Rebellion events, was, for once, lawful – it remained peaceful, and the road protestors were blockading was a public road, and was therefore, a venue where a protest could legally occur. Even then, the papers were only delayed in shipping by a matter of hours, meaning the papers were still on the shelves in newsagents at the moment that most people wanted to buy them.
And maybe News Corp should be not so reliant on just one site. What if there had been a power cut or a fire at the site? Or the road Extinction Rebellion blocked had to be closed for some other reason? Papers would have been similarly delayed by the kind of inconvenience that most businesses the size of News Corp could handle without so much as a noticeable dip in commercial operations except at or near the location of the incident. However, News Corp seem quite happy to continue to rely on the site, as they don’t seem to be overly bothered about the protest, with outlets such as the Sun putting out uncharacteristically measured statements on social media asking people to consider buying a paper the following day if they had an urge to help. This, perhaps unintentionally, made the government’s response of minister after minister spluttering about the end of democracy itself look like a hysterical overreaction.
The reaction of other press outlets to the protest was one of condemnation nearly as severe as that which came from the government – after all, to Fleet Street an attack on one is an attack on all, and as we saw in February when journalists from organisations across the political spectrum stormed out of a government press conference when nobody from the Daily Mirror was allowed to attend, this brotherhood is stronger than any political motivations any major newspaper has. This fraternity is a double-edged sword; is has both brought us press freedom but brought greater restrictions than ever on who controls the press that we actually consume. And as newspaper sales continue to dwindle, the companies who make them are only going to fight harder in the battle for the soul of British news media.
Jack Harrison is a political blogger and student at the University of Cambridge. He was the author of the blog Minority 2017 from 2017 to 2019. He can be found on Twitter @JackH1010.