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Sun 20 September 2020
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Steve Tooze, a former newspaper journalist, explains why he took part in Extinction Rebellion’s recent blockade of newspaper print works

Five very rich men discover a raging fire in the basement of an apartment block. Quietly, they disable the fire alarm and tiptoe back up to their flame-proof penthouses to continue making money, leaving all the less-rich people on the floors below to burn.

That’s the best analogy that I can conjure up to describe why the so-called ‘free press’ in this country is failing to sound the alarm about the climate emergency, the most urgent and terrifying challenge that our species has faced in this, or any other, age.

As a former insider, I can tell you that their editors know exactly what stories are acceptable to their owners without being explicitly told

It also, I hope, explains why I felt I had no choice but to join a group of Extinction Rebellion protesters lying in a road in the rain in Hertfordshire to stop the distribution of The Sun, The Time, The Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph, the newspapers I spent 20 years of my life writing for as a journalist.

You see, I have some bad news for the people who believed the outraged claims from the print media that Extinction Rebellion’s (XR) disruptive action 10 days ago was an attack on the free press.

As an ex-tabloid hack, I can exclusively reveal that we don’t have a free press in this country.


Dictating the Agenda

Instead of a free press, we have a powerful bloc of right-wing newspapers who act as a propaganda department for a handful of billionaires. These incredibly rich and influential men, including Rupert Murdoch, owner of The Sun and Times, the reclusive Barclay brothers who own the Telegraph, and Mail owner Lord Rothermere, know the world is quite literally on fire as the climate crisis gathers speed. 

They see the west coast of the USA, the Amazon and Australia in flames, killer flooding and super-storms battering the Global South, and the ice caps melting faster than even the worst scientific modelling. They listen to normally staid and conservative scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warning that this crisis threatens the lives of us and our children, and indeed the future of our entire civilisation, within our lifetimes.

They know that the IPCC predicted in 2018 that without a fundamental rewiring of our economy, we are heading for disaster. That means widespread crop failures and starvation, rising seas drowning coastal cities and low-lying islands, resource wars and millions migrating from areas of the world rendered uninhabitable by constant heatwaves.

But these press barons, who control 70% of our print media, refuse to let their newspapers tell their millions of readers about the dire urgency of the situation that the human race faces.

Because they know what it means – the end of the Business as Usual neoliberal economic model which has dominated our society for the past 40 years and upon which they have built their vast fortunes.

I don’t claim that these billionaires stride into newsrooms, dictating headlines. But as a former insider, I can tell you that their editors know exactly what stories are acceptable to their owners without being explicitly told, and that understanding permeates the entire culture of a newspaper to ensure that every journalist knows what is, and isn’t a Sun, or Mail, or Telegraph story.


Sounding the Alarm

In the 20 years since I last worked for a tabloid, I have watched with growing anxiety, anger and finally outright terror as this shared ‘understanding’ in every corner of the print media ecosystem that nothing must be allowed to rock the free-market boat watered-down coverage of the climate emergency to a meaningless, contradictory mess.

The occasional story about a natural disaster linked to climate change, or the once-in-a-blue-moon interview with David Attenborough warning about the terrible dangers ahead, were drowned out by full-blooded support for airport expansions, road building and economies built on endless consumption.

‘If things are as bad you say, it would be all over the papers,’ said my exasperated colleagues, friends and family, confirming my growing belief that unless, and until, our mass circulation newspapers sound the alarm, the people of this country will never understand and support the radical changes to our lives that will need to happen this decade – until it is too late to make any difference.

That was the realisation that drove me to stop newspapers reaching the news-stands, something I would have found unimaginable as a teenager in the 1970s dreaming of being the next Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein.

I joined a group of fellow Extinction Rebellion activists who had decided that disrupting the press for one day was the only way to make the point that we are being failed by them every day. 

Everyone in Extinction Rebellion totally and utterly believes in and supports the concept of a free press. 

But right now, the UK is 35th in the world in the Freedom of the Press Index, the European Council is warning about the government undermining investigative journalism, and a known climate denialist is the biggest influencer of UK news. Where is the uproar at our Prime Minister banning a reporter from briefings for asking difficult questions, just one day after our action?

So, rather than an attack on the free press, we are sounding a call to arms for our media, to all my former colleagues in the newspaper industry, to step up and do their duty to their readers. With this one small disruptive act, we’ve sparked a national conversation.


Changing the Conversation

In the 10 days since the action, the right-wing press has concentrated on personal attacks and smears against my XR friends and me to try to keep people talking about our tactics, rather than our motives.

It’s time to re-focus this discussion. All of us need to start talking instead about the need to tear our captive media out of the hands of the billionaires and set it free, to tell the truth about the threat that we all face – and help to save us all.

Everyone in Extinction Rebellion totally and utterly believes in and supports the concept of a free press

Without the desperate measures we employed – and which may leave me, an ordinary man with a mortgage, two children and an unspectacularly-paid middle class job, with a first criminal conviction – I would not have had the chance to sound the climate alarm that our media refuse to let you hear. 

I didn’t, and don’t, for a single second regret taking part in the Extinction Rebellion action. Indeed. I feel it was my moral duty, and my personal responsibility to the future safety of my children – and of your children.


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