The environmental group Extinction Rebellion have turned their attention to the UK press with protests at printers causing significant delays to the despatch of a number of publications. The group wanted to draw attention to the fact that several billionaire-owned media outlets have an undue influence on the message the public receives regarding both the climate crisis and a number of other social issues, skewing the debate and misleading them about the severity of the problem.
Extinction Rebellion blockaded printworks responsible for producing the Daily Mail, the Sun, the Telegraph and the Times in three locations in the UK on the 4th of September, delaying distribution of those papers.
The international movement has joined a number of critics, including Rupert Murdoch's own son, who have expressed concerns about the way the media covers climate change. Rupert Murdoch's vested interest in maintaining the profitability of the fossil fuel industry has been blamed for the fact that his newspapers consistently downplay the impact of climate change and criticise renewable energy initiatives.
With control of our print news media in the hands of a few powerful individuals, it is possible to use their positions to influence decision-making at the highest levels. Close relationships between the owners of popular newspapers and top politicians, including prime ministers, have come under scrutiny before.
Both prior to and since the Leveson inquiry in 2012, many of the UK's leading media outlets have been criticised for their failure to uphold the journalistic standards expected from such established institutions. Environmental issues aren't the only concern when it comes to the media moguls controlling the way news is reported. Not only do the mainstream papers reflect the political allegiances of their owners, but they can use their ability to influence the public as a way to exert pressure on politicians, particularly when it comes to election coverage.
The ongoing relationship between the press and the government has been further cemented with coverage of immigration policies such as the 'hostile environment' gaining traction due to the way it was reported. The right-wing press seized on the opportunity to demonise immigrants, using language designed to support their anti-immigration agenda. While the government was urging healthcare professionals and other public servants to profile clients and service users, the press was trying to influence the public's opinion to garner support for Brexit.
By portraying migrants as a costly and potentially dangerous drain on the UK's resources, the news media has helped the government gain the support they need to tighten visa restrictions. Public perception of migrants has been manipulated, despite the negative impact such action has on the UK workforce by causing a recruitment crisis in the care sector and leaving many NHS positions unfilled.
It will come as no surprise, therefore, that the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has condemned the actions of Extinction Rebellion. His assertion that their protest threatens the 'free press' entirely misses the point that the group were trying to highlight: the UK currently has a model of news reporting that favours the interests of the wealthy media moguls which own them.
Despite the Leveson inquiry's criticisms of the press and the tactics used in chasing stories, and the criticisms levelled at the relationship between politicians and the press, not much has changed since 2012. In the aftermath of the report, the Independent Press Standards Organisation was established in 2014, in an attempt to tackle the often inaccurate and sensational reporting of stories in the press.
This offered only short-lived reassurance, however, as by 2015, there were serious concerns about the organisation's ability to effect any real change. Several news outlets declined the opportunity to join the organisation, and the group's independence and ability to remain impartial was called into question when they included former Mail on Sunday editor Peter Wright on the board of their Complaints Committee. There are examples of IPSO's failure to uphold their own standards which demonstrate that organisations with enough power and influence appear, at least, to be untouchable.
Extinction Rebellion is simply the latest, and perhaps most controversial, group to question the legitimacy of a 'free press' that is so closely intertwined with politics and big business. Instead of representing the people and the truth, our newspapers are increasingly vehicles for the rich and powerful to exert their influence and further their own interests. Boris Johnson has already picked his side by threatening Channel 4's license after refusing to engage with their climate change debate.
The vicious cycle continues as the right-wing press lambast climate change activists and whip up ill-feeling among the public using the might of their media networks and politicians lack the incentive to make changes to a system that favours them.