A tale of two blockades

Harry Holmes explores the relationship between environmentalism, the British press and a rising new-right

November 13, 2020 · 9 min read
XR blockade of Knowsley printworks, 5 September (Photo: Extinction Rebellion)

On 5 September 2020, people across the country woke to find their porches and newsagents empty of their favourite newspapers. Early that morning, Extinction Rebellion activists had blockaded the printing presses of several UK papers including the Telegraph, Daily Mail and Sun. They asked that the UK media ‘Free the Truth’ and honestly cover the extent of the climate crisis. Within hours, the three blockades were cleared and around 80 arrests made, but not before the print distribution for the day was ruined.

Extinction Rebellion were not the only group organising that morning. With St George’s flags, white-nationalist imagery, and QAnon placards, the far-right assembled in Dover and blocked the A20 road leading to the port. They demanded a more violent and aggressive approach to refugees crossing the English Channel, rallying around cries of ‘no more illegal immigrants.’ Though cleared within a few hours and ten people arrested, the blockade was a clear display of British xenophobia and racism.

Strikingly, but unsurprisingly, the media response to the two blockades differed massively. The Daily Mail described Extinction Rebellion as ‘the middle-class eco rabble who want to kill off free speech’, and the Daily Telegraph ran a comment piece from Janet Daley describing the action as ‘an assault on democracy.’ Coverage of the far-right in Dover saw British papers far more muted. The Sun depicted those in Dover as ‘anti-migrant protestors’, with a section discussing ‘smuggling kingpins’ encouraging people to travel to the UK, and Britain ‘struggling to deport’ people coming to the country. The MailOnline’s language went even further, describing the far right as ‘campaigners confronted by groups of pro-migrant protestors’, while also referencing ‘record’ numbers of people arriving in the UK.

Righting the news?

Of course, UK print media has a long history of supporting the far-right. Perhaps one of the most notable examples being the Daily Mail’s open support for the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s. However, this is only the tip of the xenophobic iceberg. British newspapers have been central to recent agitation against people migrating into the UK. In 2015, the Daily Mail published a cartoon depicting refugees coming to Europe as rats. The same year, the Sun published a column suggesting gunboats should be used to police migration. In the six years between 2010 and 2016, the Daily Express published 179 front covers such as ‘migrants flood back to Britain’ and ‘Britain must ban migrants.’

Many prestigious faces in the new populist right find themselves platformed by the UK print media. The Sun regularly published Katie Hopkins columns from 2013 to 2015, until MailOnline began publishing her work from 2015 to 2017. The Daily Express has for several years published columns by Nigel Farage attacking immigration, the EU, and more recently, lockdown restrictions. Most notably, Boris Johnson began his career as the Brussels correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, then as editor of the Spectator. The platform these newspapers provided kept these figures’ political careers moving forward and provided an acceptable veneer to brutal xenophobia and nationalism.

Denying the headlines

At the same time, British print media has been notable for its promotion of climate denial. Both the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph regularly published climate sceptic Christopher Booker, including when he argued the 2018 summer heatwave had nothing to do with global warming. James Delingpole, another big name in the climate sceptic grift market, boasts columns in the Daily Mail, Daily Express, Daily Telegraph and the Times over his writing career. In 2011 the Daily Telegraph even published his claim ‘there has been no global warming since 1998.’

Such anti-environmentalism is not a new phenomenon. In the early 2000s, the Telegraph garnered controversy for publishing a polemic from Christopher Monckton which claimed to show how ‘how politicians, scientists and bureaucrats contrived a threat of Biblical floods, droughts, plagues, and extinctions.’ Even further back, in 1995 the Telegraph responded negatively to a Greenpeace occupation of the Brent Spar oil rig, a protest against the potential toxic effects of its demolition. Their Industry Editor, Hugo Gurdon, went as far as to proclaim an ‘environmental jihad’ and described environmentalists as ‘not just a threat to business but also to liberal democratic society.’

As climate denialism increasingly becomes socially untenable, many newspapers have scrambled to downplay climate change, arguing that environmentalists are causing harm. This year, Douglas Murray wrote in the Mail on Sunday that ‘terrifying our children with doom mongering propaganda on climate change is nothing less than abuse.’ Such a project posits environmentalists as not only misguided, but fundamentally dangerous to society.

The worst of both worlds

It would be easy to treat these two trends of anti-environmentalism and support for xenophobia as disparate features of a specific wing of British print media. Instead, these trends must be understood in their contemporary context.

Since the late 1960s, British print media has been consolidated in the hands of several ultra-wealthy owners. Six billionaires own or have majority control of most national print newspapers. While their influence in the editorial content in the papers will take varying forms, neutrality is impossible. There is a class interest in sowing division across the global working class and presenting migration as the problem rather than UK inequality, especially if it sells newspapers. There is also a class interest in discrediting and undermining environmentalists, particularly when they are fighting to keep profitable fossil fuels in the ground.

All signs point to this getting worse, with the populist right setting up new projects like GB news, and notorious right wing figures and climate sceptics Paul Dacre and Charles Moore recently floated as both Ofcom and BBC heads respectively. Despite Moore ruling himself out, his suggested BBC leadership indicates the continued uphill struggle anti-racists and environmentalists face.

Challenging the press

When so much of environmental political strategy consists of attempting to gain coverage in the British press, it never really stops to ask whether these papers would ever ‘free the truth’. Given their ownership and record, it is inconceivable. Such a sobering assessment points to the urgent need to both construct media alternatives and strike a final blow against these long-ailing print institutions, demanding they are taken from the hands of the wealthy. A transformation of the British press must become an environmentalist demand.

As denial of climate change becomes increasingly untenable, a worse possibility emerges. Given the long history of the environmental movement’s own racism, the British media may peddle concern for climate in nationalistic and xenophobic clothes. The racist myths of overpopulation and migration will be presented as the cause of environmental destruction, such as in this Daily Mail piece by Stephen Glover. In response, environmentalists need to  stand against these positions, draw clear lines and have a zero-tolerance policy to anyone in the movement supporting such views.

September’s events showed the tendency of right-wing newspapers to give far-right organisers a free pass, while attacking environmentalists. This suggests an urgent need for the forces of anti-racist organising and environmentalists to unite, difficult as this may be with the environmental movement’s past. In the face of press opposition, environmentalism calling for a borderless and decarbonised world has never been more crucial.

Harry Holmes is an organiser with the UK Youth Climate Coalition and Green New Deal UK, and culture editor of Bright Green

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