Six Extinction Rebellion protesters on trial for blockading the printing press of some of the UK’s major newspapers have been found guilty.
The activists appeared at St Albans Magistrates’ Court on Friday accused of obstructing the highway outside Newsprinters printing works in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, on September 4, 2020.
Judge Sally Fudge convicted the defendants, saying that while the demonstration was “peaceful” it had a significant impact on the ability of businesses to function and caused newspapers to lose an estimated £1 million.
The court heard how on the night of September 4 through until the next day, around 50 XR members used vehicles and bamboo structures, used as lock-ons, to deny access to or from the Broxbourne site. The protest lasted 14 hours.
Those involved were targeting certain parts of the print media who, according to the defendants, “failed to accurately report on the climate crisis and are guilty of corruption”.
The Newsprinters presses publish the Rupert Murdoch-owned News Corp’s titles including the Sun, Times, Sun On Sunday and Sunday Times, as well as the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Mail and Mail On Sunday, and the London Evening Standard.
The Crown Prosecution Service decided to try six defendants at a time.
This is the second trial, and it involved defendants Caspar Hughes, 49, of Exeter; Elise Yarde, 32, of Walthamstow; Amir Jones, 39, of London; Laura Frandsen, 30, of London; Charlotte Kirin, 51, of Bury St Edmunds; and Hazel Stenson, 56, of Bury St Edmunds.
A verdict was expected last month but Ms Fudge agreed to postpone the trial to await the outcome of a Supreme Court judgment, which on June 25 overturned the convictions of four protesters who had locked themselves together outside an arms fair in 2017.
The four demonstrators were found to have been exercising their rights to free speech and assembly and had a lawful excuse.
Ms Fudge concluded the police had acted proportionately in arresting the protesters, adding: “The level of disruption caused by the protest was high, and the obstruction of the highway went on for a very long time.
“It is accepted that the impact of their protest would have been lessened had they been located to the side of the highway, such that the deliveries could continue to take place as normal, but the view of Superintendent Wells, who made the decision to arrest, was that by the time he arrived, the protest had been ongoing for around four-and-a-half hours.
“In my view the protesters had, up until the point of arrest, been able to exercise their Article 10 and 11 rights with little, if any, interference from the state, and that part of the protest had already had some impact on Newsprinters’ ability to conduct its business in the usual way.”
The judge said this led to a “loss of business revenue valued at over £1 million”, adding: “It had an impact akin to a ripple-effect, with the distributors of the newspapers at the heart who bore the brunt of the disruption, through to the individual consumer at the outside who could not buy their preferred newspaper that day experiencing some inconvenience.”
During the trial, the court heard how Home Secretary Priti Patel had made multiple calls to commanding officers about the protest and requested to “expedite” their removal.
Raj Chada, defending, said an independent review of the incident, commissioned by Hertfordshire Constabulary, found officers had been placed under “significant political pressure”.
However, Ms Fudge said she found police had “maintained their operational independence” and Ms Patel’s conversations with senior officers had not influenced decisions taken on the ground.
Sentencing the defendants, Ms Fudge said: “This was a peaceful protest with no suggestion of damage caused by anybody and no abuse or obstruction of officers. You all spoke in your defence with passion and clarity and it was obvious that you had thought carefully about what you were doing.”
All six defendants, apart from Frandsen, were given a conditional discharge for 12 months and ordered to pay £150 to the court and a £22 surcharge.
Frandsen, who has two previous convictions for similar offences, was ordered to pay a financial penalty of £150, and to pay the court £150 with a surcharge of £34.
Extinction Rebellion said it is considering an appeal against the convictions.
In a statement after the hearing, an XR spokesperson said: “We are astonished that Judge Fudge ruled there was no political interference in the police operation, despite overwhelming evidence.
“As floods devastate Europe, another heat dome is building in the United States, and environmental defenders across the world are being silenced, XR will continue to demand that the press tell the truth about the climate and ecological emergency.”
Ms Stenson, who works for a green solutions technology company, told PA: “I feel really let down by the justice system. Sally Fudge missed an opportunity to alter the course here but instead she has chosen to stick with the status quo.
“We didn’t feel the media was reporting what was going on and we felt we had no alternative but to target the worst of the press so that the public would hear our message. We understood what the consequences could be in doing that and it is a shame we now have to accept those consequences.
“What’s happening in Europe right across the Channel on our very doorstep with the flooding is heartbreaking and is a direct result of climate change and a sign we must keep fighting to change things.”