War of words erupts as Dominic Raab slams Diane Abbott after she defended Extinction Rebellion anarchists who blockaded printing presses – as he blasts protesters for ‘hijacking’ climate change cause with their ‘militant agenda’
- More than a hundred XR protesters were accused of attacking the free press
- They blocked gates and roads to the printing works in Broxbourne and Knowsley
- Boris Johnson and Priti Patel have vowed to crackdown on the group’s protests
- However, Diane Abbott defended protest, saying direct action was ‘legal tactic’
A war of words has erupted after Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab slammed Labour’s Diane Abbott for defending Extinction Rebellion activists who blockaded newspaper printing presses.
Ms Abbott compared Extinction Rebellion to the Suffragettes and criticised the government’s plans to reclassify the activists as an organised crime gang.
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.’
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.
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.
Why Extinction Rebellion has blocked the printing presses
Extinction Rebellion (XR) claimed last night that it was using the disruption to ‘expose’ newspapers ‘failure to report on the climate and ecological emergency’.
They alleged: ‘Coverage in many of the newspapers printed here is polluting national debate on climate change, immigration policy, the rights and treatment of minority groups, and on dozens of other issues.’
This morning the group apologised on Twitter for the disruption caused to newsagents but said it was not apologising to Murdoch for disrupting his ‘agenda’.
Responding to the home secretary’s criticism, they accused the press of stirring ‘division and hate’.
There have been fears in recent weeks that XR has been taken over by a cabal of hard-left groups hell-bent on driving their own agenda.
Politicians lined up to criticise the group this morning, saying they thought this may damage support for the cause at a critical time.
Labour shadow international trade secretary Emily Thornberry said: ‘I really don’t know what it is that is expected to be achieved.
‘I know that for many older listeners it’s very much part of their daily life, getting their paper delivered in the morning, and I just think it’s wrong.’
Criticism has been levelled at the group for disrupting the distribution of newspapers during the global pandemic.
‘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, as well as The Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Mail and Mail On Sunday.
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.