There’s nothing more reckless than denying the risk that our civilisation faces from the changes we are rapidly bringing about in our ecosystems and atmosphere. And there’s nothing more irresponsible than the powerful lashing out at the powerless when the powerless dare to call out that recklessness.
“This is censorship of a free press” was the cry of outrage from the power elite against the blockading of Rupert Murdoch’s printworks, at the height of Extinction Rebellion’s actions recently.
But some perspective is desperately needed. What XR did was to delay or block some print newspapers for oneday – to make the point that it believes the press isn’t free. It was not an attack on press freedom, but a bold piece of civil disobedience to highlight how the British press is captured by a handful of billionaire climate-unrealists, headed by Murdoch.
Rather than running the press in our best interests, these billionaire owners based offshore promote a worldview aiming to eliminate environmental protections and promote more roads and more flying – and to hell with the consequences for our climate and future.
XR caused a tiny disruption, to warn about the vast, permanent disruption that is coming if humanity doesn’t completely change path. We need to drastically relocalise our world, to protect ourselves against climate chaos and coronaviruses alike. We need to be travelling and burning carbon much less, not more. Our operating system needs changing.
The chief obstacle to public comprehension of all this is the press, epitomised by the Murdoch empire. Even his own son has recognised this.
In response to XR’s action, the Murdoch press doubled-down and engaged in a campaign of distortion against the non-violent disobedients.
I myself was among the targets as I was willing to get arrested to stop the torrent of denialist and delayist ‘information’ that saturates our media and politics around the climate emergency. But, as a result of having been systematically and consequentially misrepresented, including having false quotes stuck in my mouth, I have had enough.
As of now, I am no longer willing to speak to Murdoch’s papers. It is time to #standuptoMurdoch, and make clear that these organs do not deserve to be taken seriously. For, where it matters, they are propaganda rags.
My stance may seem quixotic and it may achieve nothing, except reducing further the small amount of coverage that I ever get to feature in, in the print media. But I hope it will serve as a precedent to suggest that a much better outcome is possible.
Two years ago, I decided to no longer debate climate-deniers on the BBC – a move which helped lead to a change of policy at the broadcaster. That stance, which started as a lone act – when I found that I just could not let myself engage any longer in pseudo-debate with those denying the basic science and called out the BBC for continuing to set up these phony wars – swiftly emerged as a successful campaign.
My tweet explaining that I just wasn’t prepared to debate climate truth with climate-liars on the BBC went viral, with eight million people seeing it and it being covered by the world’s media. As a result, many others got on board, including unusual suspects such as the former BBC News Director Richard Sambrook. The BBC came around, finally acknowledging that it made no sense to host climate-deniers as ‘balance’ for the truth.
I was David against Goliath – and unexpectedly won. I hope that my stance on the Murdoch press just might initiate a similar effect, over time.
If it doesn’t, I suspect this will partly be because how terrified people are of Murdoch. That is a key reason why the response across the spectrum to XR’s action at the printworks was less supportive than might have been hoped and perhaps a key reason why too many environmentalists, politicians and journalists hid behind the ‘free speech’ mantra.
Expecting a Backlash
My first appeal is directed to all those who have a grievance against Murdoch. I hope we can gather high-profile people of goodwill (and all citizens who care about truth) to say that this climate-denying media baron does not speak for us. That we not only refuse to give him our money, but we refuse to give his papers the social capital of our voices in their pages.
Let’s start to organise around the #BoycottMurdoch hashtag because this is about the world and whether we are going to have a future or not. It is not a struggle we can afford to lose.
I’m not just talking about easy targets such as the Sun, the Australian, Fox News or even the real and scary prospect of the latter coming to the UK. I’m also talking about the the Times and Sunday Times.
What I would say to journalists working in Murdoch’s empire – for whom boycotting Murdoch is not an easy option – is go further than just trying to do the job and consider more deeply the public interest.
As for those who will may associate me with ‘cancel culture’, it is precisely my freedom to not speak to liars. Moreover, there is little in common between what I am calling for and ‘cancel culture’, which I have no time for. ‘Cancel culture’ is about no-platforming people, but newspapers are themselves platforms. They are supposed to be the medium, not the message. We seem to have forgotten this. What is happening is that Murdoch is cancelling the truth.
Any negative consequences that come from my taking up this stance – and, knowing the history of the Murdoch press, there may well be such consequences – should accrue to me alone, and not to organisations for which I have previously been a spokesperson. For that reason, I feel I have no choice but to step away from Extinction Rebellion, a movement I continue to support, in order to protect it from the near-inevitable backlash of daring to confront the Murdoch empire head-on.
A free press is an ideal, not something we can complacently assume has been achieved. Our press won’t be free until its ownership is much more democratically shared. You can be a tool of unaccountable press barons. Or you can act to save your kids’ future. I’m sorry to have to break it to you, but: you can’t do both.
Many of us sometimes have a sense of learned helplessness in the face of the vastness of the eco-emergency – and in the face of the unaccountable power of the Murdoch press. I am attempting to offer us all a way out of that sense of victimhood. It is time for us to become Davids, while remembering something important: against all expectations, Goliath lost.
So here’s my non-violent slingshot: if you have ever felt powerless in the face of Murdoch’s empire, you don’t need to any more. If walking away was good enough for James Murdoch, then it ought to be good enough for any of us.
Because there is nothing more powerful than a principled stance whose time has come.