Extinction Rebellion is being considered for reclassification as an organised crime group following a protest that prevented many national UK newspapers from reaching the stands, according to a report.
Ministers are said to be considering protections for “tenets of democracy”, such as courts and the press, after demonstrations prevented the distribution of millions of newspapers on Saturday.
The environmental campaign group targeted Newsprinters printing works at Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, and Knowsley, near Liverpool, leaving newsagents’ stands empty across the country.
Citing government sources, the Press Association (PA) news agency says Home Secretary Priti Patel wants to take a “fresh look” at how Extinction Rebellion (XR) is classified under law following the protest.
Appearing on Sky News’ Sophy Ridge On Sunday, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab would not confirm the PA report, but said “we always keep all of our laws under review” and wants “to ensure that kind of behaviour is not repeated”.
Earlier in the programme, Labour MP Diane Abbott defended XR and compared the group to the suffragettes, saying it would be “ridiculous” to reclassify them as an organised crime group as they are “not criminal, they are protesters and activists” – comments Mr Raab said he was “astounded” by.
He described the idea of blocking newspapers from being distributed “perverse”, adding that it was “damaging to the cause of climate change“.
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey, a former energy and climate change secretary, told the programme that XR’s actions were undermining the group’s message – saying protesters were “shooting themselves in the foot”.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer also said in a statement: “The free press is the cornerstone of democracy and we must do all we can to protect it. Denying people the chance to read what they choose is wrong and does nothing to tackle climate change.”
More than 100 XR demonstrators used vehicles and bamboo lock-ons to block roads outside the Newsprinters works overnight on Friday, with both protests continuing until Saturday afternoon.
Some 80 people were arrested across the two sites, Merseyside and Hertfordshire Police said.
On Sunday, Hertfordshire Police said 51 people have now been charged with obstruction of the highway.
Two people have been remanded in custody to appear in court on Monday, while 49 were released on conditional bail, police added.
The depots print 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.
According to PA’s government sources, ministers want to clamp down on XR’s activities, which have included bringing cities across the UK to a standstill by forming human barriers along major roads, and by disrupting public transport.
Under additional proposals, parliament, courts and the press could be given special status in regard to the key role they play in democracy, with the potential for police to be given increased powers to stop protesters entering designated areas outside such premises.
“It would be illegal to stop MPs going to vote or judges getting to court and it would also protect a free press,” a government source told PA.
XR apologised to newsagents for the disruption on Saturday but said it would not say sorry to Mr Murdoch, calling on him to “stop suppressing the truth about the climate crisis and profiting from the division your papers create”.
Responding to criticism from Ms Patel that their actions were an “attack on our free press”, XR said: “Our free press, society and democracy is under attack – from a failing government that lies to us consistently, is becoming increasingly authoritarian, and is leading us towards four degrees of warming.”
A further XR protest took place in Motherwell, aimed at disrupting the distribution of Saturday’s Scottish Sun newspaper, but no arrests were made.
There was also a large police presence in central London on Saturday as the group staged further demonstrations.