Geoffrey Lean: 'XR has done a lot of good...but attempts to coerce the press are likely to be counter productive'

It was, admittedly, not the best way to start a good night’s sleep. Very late on Friday, I glanced at Twitter, to see Extinction Rebellion (XR) saying it was blocking distribution of “untruthful” newspapers, to get them to improve their coverage of climate change. I immediately tweeted an objection.

After a fitful night worrying about it, I awoke to find myself in the middle of a vigorous Twitter debate. That’s something my children have long warned me to avoid, but – as Britain’s longest-serving environment journalist – I felt I had to join in.

A long day followed as I insisted that it was both wrong to try to stop publication of views one disagreed with, and likely to be counterproductive at a time when coverage has been getting better, if often from a low base.

XR supporters roundly disagreed, but I got strong backing from other environmental journalists and from, even radical, green pressure groups. And, by the end, there were signs that XR leaders were beginning to get my point.

I hope so, because XR has done a lot of good. Founded in April 2018 by a group of 17 activists frustrated by the world’s dire lack of progress in tackling the escalating crisis of climate change, it burst into prominence a year later by bringing much of London to a halt for two weeks. Hundreds of thousands of people were inconvenienced but – to general surprise, including my own – its good-humoured, inclusive approach won wide public support. Passers-by joined in and even police officers danced with the demonstrators.

Together with Greta Thunberg’s school strikes, it revolutionised opinion. Public concern about climate change reached record levels – and even this April, at the height of the pandemic, two-thirds of Britons judged it as serious as Covid-19.

As a result, even much of the previously climate-sceptic Tory Right shifted its stance: the government is now committed to reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Jonathon Porritt, former adviser to two prime ministers, says XR “transformed the politics of climate change in the UK”.

Maybe this went to its head. Perhaps XR attributed its success directly to its actions, rather than to the popular support they engendered. Whatever, it seemed to set out to penalise, rather than attract, the public. There were plans, wisely dropped at the last minute, to paralyse Heathrow, disrupting holidays. Then activists provoked widespread anger by trying to stop people getting to work by tube.

Friday night’s protests, depriving people of their newspapers, seems part of this pattern. XR says it blocked distribution of the Sun, the Times, the Telegraph and the Daily Mail because their insufficient reporting of climate change, and publication of climate sceptics, had allowed governments to take insufficient action.

I argued in the Twitter debate that – while there should, indeed, be much more coverage – interfering with free speech was both wrong in principle and wrongheaded in practice. And I added that – leaving aside that the Financial Times, which now covers climate change well, was also affected, and that the blockade stopped Sun readers from seeing an article on the issue by David Attenborough – it risked reducing coverage, instead of increasing it.

That, I explained, is because journalists and newspapers, rightly, react against outside coercion to take a different line – often by doubling down on their original positions.

XR and its supporters retorted that a press “controlled by vested interests” was far from free. The sceptic James Delingpole took a not entirely dissimilar (if contrary) view, writing that he did not “give a toss” about the assault on the papers since “pretty much the entirety of the British print media is now bought and paid for by the Green Blob”, while saying Sun staff “force through” a “green agenda”.

Most Greens took my view. Even Greenpeace praised environmental coverage, while a former prominent XR activist said journalists from all the blockaded papers had been “working hard to report the climate crisis”.

And they have been gaining ground. Four years ago after I and three other environmental journalists lost columns on national papers, only one remained to counter ten sceptic columnists. Oddly this was in inverse proportion to public opinion, only a tenth of which, polls then showed, opposed serious action (scepticism has since fallen to 7%).

Now, though sceptical columnists still dominate, the disparity has narrowed. And news about climate change is now universally reported straight, where once some papers ignored or slanted it.

That needs to get very much better still. The climate crisis is still grossly underreported and underplayed, even at a time when – as record temperatures in the Artic and fires in Australia, Siberia, Brazil and California testify – it is getting ever greater, and more newsworthy.

But that big improvement should take place because this is simply the biggest story around.

Geoffrey Lean is the world’s longest-serving environmental journalist and has written for titles including: the Yorkshire Post, Observer, Independent on Sunday and Daily Telegraph. He is also a member of the judging panel for the British Journalism Awards.

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