Ministers and MPs have criticised environmental protesters for targeting two News Corporation printing presses and delaying the delivery of Saturday newspapers.
More than 100 Extinction Rebellion (XR) protesters used vehicles and bamboo lock-ons to block roads outside the Newsprinters printing works at Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, and Knowsley, near Liverpool on Friday night.
By Saturday morning, police said some 72 people had been arrested.
The Newsprinters presses publish the Rupert Murdoch-owned News Corp’s titles including The Sun, The Times, The Sun on Sunday and The Sunday Times, as well as The Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, and the London Evening Standard.
Readers of The Sun and The Times were told on Twitter that the protest action could mean delayed deliveries of papers to newsagents on Saturday morning.
Reacting on Twitter, Home Secretary Priti Patel said: “This morning people across the country will be prevented from reading their newspaper because of the actions of Extinction Rebellion.
“This attack on our free press, society and democracy is completely unacceptable.”
Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick tweeted: “A good day to #buyanewspaper. A free press matters to all of us who value a free society. They mustn’t be silenced by an intolerant minority.”
This morning people across the country will be prevented from reading their newspaper because of the actions of Extinction Rebellion.— Priti Patel (@pritipatel) September 5, 2020
This attack on our free press, society and democracy is completely unacceptable. https://t.co/3DfasjD6sS
Meanwhile, Labour’s shadow international trade secretary Emily Thornberry told Times Radio on Saturday morning: “This is very worrying and I don’t really know what it is that is expected to be achieved and I know that for many older listeners it’s very much part of their daily life, getting their paper delivered in the morning, and I just think it’s wrong.”
Speaking to the same radio station, Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood claimed XR had “lost sight … of how to campaign” on a “very important issue”.
On Twitter, Extinction Rebellion said it was “sorry” for disruption caused to newsagents but it was not apologising to Mr Murdoch for disrupting his “agenda”.
Responding to Ms Patel’s criticism, the environmental campaign group accused the press of stirring “division and hate”.
Weâre here all night, folks! Weâre going to to filter out the lies and take the power back for a night.— Extinction Rebellion UK 🌍 (@XRebellionUK) September 5, 2020
FREE THE TRUTH#ExtinctionRebellion #freethetruth #ClimateEmergency #WeWantToLive pic.twitter.com/mUhFvp0tc5
The Federation of Independent Retailers (NFRN) said the protests had hit home delivery operations, including for the “elderly and vulnerable”, with its members having to deal with “angry customers”.
National president Stuart Reddish said: “Newsagents have played a critical role during Covid-19 in getting newspapers into the hands of readers and this is not helpful at a time when every sale counts.”
Ian Murray, executive director of the Society of Editors, added: “Everyone has the right to peacefully protest and make their voices heard, after all that is what a free press is all about. But it is not acceptable for those who wish only their voices to be heard to attempt to silence others.”
Hertfordshire Police earlier said delivery lorries had not left the Broxbourne site as of 6am on Saturday.
Shortly before 10am, it said 42 people had been arrested, with more expected.
Newsprinters condemned the protests as an “attack on all of the free press” which had affected workers going about their jobs, and others such as newsagents who face a “financial penalty”.
The company said it had transferred printing to other sites, but that delays would occur in some deliveries of The Sun, The Times, the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and the Financial Times.
Under a banner reading “Free the truth”, XR tweeted that it was using the disruption to expose the newspapers’ “failure to report on the climate & ecological emergency, and their consistent manipulation of truth to suit their own agendas”.
“Coverage in many of the newspapers printed here is polluting national debate on climate change, immigration policy, the rights and treatment of minority groups, and on dozens of other issues,” the group said.
Hertfordshire Police assistant chief constable Owen Weatherill said officers, including from neighbouring forces, had worked throughout the night to ease disruption.
He said: “Protesters ignored our requests to move location, so we have taken robust action to enable the roads to be reopened and to remove the protesters causing obstructions.”
Merseyside Police tweeted on Saturday morning that 30 people had been arrested at the Knowsley plant, with two vans and a boat causing an obstruction being removed.
XR protesters also held a smaller demonstration near Motherwell aimed at disrupting the distribution of Saturday’s Scottish Sun newspaper.