Think twice before you take aim at the messenger


My heart sank when I heard the news that Extinction Rebellion (XR) protesters had delayed the distribution of several UK national newspapers by blockading their printing presses.

It's not that I don't accept the urgency of tackling global warming, of spreading the word about the environmental challenges facing our world, or of drawing the media's attention to the radical steps we have to take to ensure our planet's long-term survival.

But stopping the flow of news and opinion, and stepping back from dialogue to take direct action against the media seems more like shooting the messenger.

The protest at printing presses at Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, Knowsley, Merseyside, and near Motherwell, North Lanarkshire was, said XR, aimed at highlighting the newspapers' failure to report accurately the urgent threats posed by climate change.

In a statement on their website, XR declared: "Last night's action has brought us one day with far less misinformation, division and hate. For one night ordinary people – terrified by the climate and ecological emergency that so much of our media is failing to report sufficiently – made these powerful and undemocratic corporations feel the vulnerability ordinary people live with every day.

"We are in an emergency of unprecedented scale and the papers we have targeted are not reflecting the scale and urgency of what is happening to our planet. Even as we in the UK are experiencing the impacts of our warming world, the Murdoch press remains silent. We – and the free press – have so much more work to do."

Rupert Murdoch's News UK owns the Sun, the Sun on Sunday, The Times and The Sunday Times, and the presses also print other British newspapers including the Daily Mail and Financial Times.

Increasingly, people receive their news online and via social media, as well as via TV and radio. Print newspapers are facing sharp falls in their readerships. So the protests at the printing presses would have limited impact in stopping the distribution of that day's news.

But the blockades are massively symbolic. They matter because they show the protesters seeking to stifle the flow of news and opinion because they disagree with the positions being taken by the newspapers.

Some church leaders and other Christians have joined previous XR protests in London and around the country. I respect the principled stand that they have taken and applaud how the Church of England and other denominations have raised the profile of climate action in recent years.

Yet, for me, the direct protest against the media organisations seems an ill-judged step. True, it wins coverage for a day or so, but the freedom of the press is a principle to be highly valued alongside the freedom to protest peacefully.

Across the world, journalists are under attack and face increasing levels of threat. The concept of a free press is being eroded in countries across the globe. Against this bleak background, it's sad to see the media becoming targets in the UK.

Yes, Jesus overturned the tables of the money-changers in the temple, demonstrating that direct action was sometimes necessary. But most often he spent time engaging with people, answering their questions, posing questions of his own, debating with those who opposed him, and clearly setting out his radical message.

Having a free press is a vital part of a democratic society. They may not always report what we would like them to, or in ways we would prefer to read. Sometimes they will get things wrong. Yet the value of press freedom outweighs its shortcomings. The alternative is beyond grim.

So – whatever the strength of our argument or our grievance – let's think twice, or more, before we seek to stop the flow of news in a democracy.

Rev Peter Crumpler is a Church of England priest in St Albans, Herts, and a former communications director of the CofE. He is the author of 'Responding to Post-truth' published by Grove Books.