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‘We Must Stop Incitement of Violence Against Environmental Activists Before Someone is Seriously Harmed’

Regulators are failing to stop the media from encouraging vigilante action against activists – the law must step in to keep them safe, argues Tom Hardy

Climate activists from Extinction Rebellion (XR) march around the City of London in February 2024
Climate activists from Extinction Rebellion march in London in February 2024. Photo: Ron Fassbender / Alamy

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In 2012, then Home Secretary Theresa May declared her aim “to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration”. The intention to do so spread, not just in our political structures, but through the media – with an emboldened Katie Hopkins using a column in The Sun to liken migrants to “cockroaches” who should be repelled by gunships.

Given that immigration was a key debating ground in the 2016 EU Referendum, this hostility was also a factor in the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox by white supremacist Thomas Mair just before the Brexit Referendum. Police reported that hate crime rose by 57% in the four days following the referendum, with 14% of them involving threatened or actual physical violence.

The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance singled out The Sun and Daily Mail for their use of “offensive, discriminatory and provocative terminology” in October 2016.

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The report highlighted hate speech as a significant issue, urging them to “avoid harm to targeted persons or vulnerable groups”. The Commission’s chair, Christian Ahlund, warned that “violence is on the rise in the UK at the same time as we see worrying examples of intolerance and hate speech in the newspapers, online and even among politicians”.

Now we see the incitement of violence towards climate activists.

Last year, Rod Liddle wrote in The Sun that “if it were up to me I would advance towards [climate activists] in a steamroller. Glued your arse to the road have you? Well you won’t be needing it much longer”. 

This year, GB News celebrated Louis Grieves, who assaulted a Just Stop Oil (JSO) protestor, while TalkTV presenter Andre Walker suggested that rubber bullets were not an adequate response to Extinction Rebellion (XR).

He bemoaned the unlikelihood of ‘fixed bayonets’ – an open invitation to the kind of retribution threatened in this all too typical a response on an XR activist’s X (formerly Twitter) feed: “People like you should be shot in the face. Your kids should witness it and then also be shot in the face. You are absolute scum.”

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Then there are the fossil fuel-funded Tufton Street think tanks, led by figures such as Ian Plimer, who calls for his readers to “maintain the rage”, and Allister Heath, who believes that climate activists threaten “the total destruction of Western society”.

Such commentators freely incite anger and disdain towards climate scientists in their opinion pieces.

Another example came in The Sun“Plough On: US cops show Brit police how to deal with eco protestors as they drive truck through Extinction Rebellion barricade”. I complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) that this piece, at the very least, it constituted harassment. But it was deemed not to have contravened its definition of harassment, which applies only to situations where journalists harass individuals.

Such incitement seems obvious, though, to UN Special Rapporteur for Environmental Defenders, Michael Forst. In a statement laying out his concerns, he wrote: “I am distressed to see how environmental defenders are derided by some of the mainstream UK media and in the political sphere.

“By deriding environmental defenders, the media and political figures put them at risk of threats, abuse and even physical attacks from unscrupulous persons who rely on the toxic discourse to justify their own aggression.”

If regulators fail to act, it must surely be the duty of the law to step up.

Part 2 of the Serious Crime Act of 2007 creates the statutory crime of intentionally encouraging or assisting an offence.

In its original formulation, the act included a clause stating that it was “not a defence to a charge of incitement that the other person… does not commit the offence, or commits a different offence to that incited”. However, section 59 of the Serious Crime Act 2007 removed this caveat – essentially giving culture warrior commentators a ‘get out of jail free’ card whatever the consequences of their rhetoric.

It is ironic that the Government’s Police Crime Sentencing and Courts act criminalises “a person who incites another to commit an offence”, but reserves this indictment for peaceful protestors.

With UK law emasculated, attention must turn to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) which, in the 2006 Erbakan versus Turkey case, concluded that,as a matter of principle it may be considered necessary in certain democratic societies to sanction or even prevent all forms of expression which spread, incite, promote or justify hatred based on intolerance”.

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Indeed, in 2018, the ECHR addressed the case of Kaboğlu and Oran, two lecturers who had experienced threats and hate speech in newspaper articles after writing a report supporting minority rights.

Despite losing their cases domestically, the ECHR found a violation of Article 8 (right to respect for private life) due to the failure of the authorities to protect them, ruling that the “threats of physical harm made against the applicants sought to undermine their intellectual personality, causing them feelings of fear, anxiety and vulnerability in order to humiliate them and break their will to defend their ideas”.

Globally, an environmental activist has been killed on average every two days over the past decade by petrostates. How long before an activist in this country suffers serious harm?

Governments that foment ‘culture wars’ can be voted out. However, the press will remain untouchable until brought before the courts.

We should take heed of former Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres, who concluded her keynote speech to the Royal Society of Arts by exhorting us not to “ ignore or turn away from threat but instead to metabolise the understanding of that threat into an effective response guided by… gritty determination and resilience; openness to others; optimism; love and courage”.


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