Hertfordshire Police have come under fire for failing to stop the Extinction Rebellion blockade of newspaper printing presses on Friday.
The XR action saw protesters targeting Newsprinters printing works at Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, and Knowsley, near Liverpool, blocking the day’s newspapers from leaving the depots.
The action began at around 10pm on Friday night with the protesters not being cleared until 10am the following day, leading to hundreds of Britons being unable to read their newspaper on Saturday morning.
Now, the police response has been condemned with accusations that Hertfordshire Police ‘facilitated’ the attack.
It comes after it emerged that XR’s intention to target newspaper printworks was reported nine months ago, along with claims that police only sent six officers to the Broxbourne plant after the alarm was raised on Friday night.
Hertfordshire Constabulary said in a statement: ‘The rights to protest are well established in this country and we remain committed to facilitating peaceful protest and ensuring compliance with the law.’
However, the stance was criticised by several high-profile figures.
David Blunkett, the former Labour home secretary, said: ‘I think they’re mixing up historic debate about [union] picketing with protests relating to political issues, which can be dealt with through the normal democratic process.’
Richard Walton, former head of the Met’s Counter Terrorism Command and now senior fellow at Policy Exchange, said Friday’s protest showed how the group had shifted from mere protesters into organising ‘planned criminality, and should be treated as such’.
‘Their reticence to do so undermines our democracy and strengthens extremist groups like XR.’
XR action saw protesters targeting Newsprinters printing works at Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, and Knowsley, near Liverpool, blocking the day’s newspapers from leaving the depots
David Blunkett, the former Labour home secretary, has led criticism of the police’s response to Extinction Rebellion action
Ian Austin, a Labour MP, told the Telegraph: ‘The police should uphold the law, enable people to go to work and read the papers they choose.’
It comes after Donnachadh McCarthy, XR spokesman at the Broxbourne demonstration, said only six officers attended the protest at around 10.15pm, with reports that no warnings were given to police beforehand.
A Hertfordshire police spokesman refused to confirm how many officers attended.
Police also insisted that they had no warning of the protest before it went ahead, despite claims that it had been planned from last year.
XR plans to target the media began in October last year and it reportedly wanted maximum disruption to papers published by Rupert Murdoch, Telegraph Media Group and Daily Mail and General Trust.
A document obtained by a Sunday newspaper last December showed organisers spotted how ‘vulnerable’ Broxbourne was because it had only one exit leading to a busy road.
Merseyside Police announced this morning that it had charged 26 people, aged between 19 and 60, following the demonstration at the ‘News International premises’ in Knowsley on Friday night.
They are due to appear at Liverpool and Knowsley Magistrates’ Court and St Helens Magistrates’ Court on January 8 and 13 next year.
Police said all 26 have been granted bail under the condition they do not enter Merseyside or contact any News International employees.
Sources confirmed that Priti Patel, above, wants to take a ‘fresh look’ at how the climate change group is classified under law
More than 100 demonstrators used vehicles and bamboo lock-ons to block roads outside the Newsprinters’ works on Friday evening, with both protests continuing until Saturday afternoon.
Hertfordshire Police said they had taken 50 people into custody.
XR apologised to newsagents for the disruption but added it would not apologise to Mr Murdoch, calling on him to ‘stop suppressing the truth about the climate crisis and profiting from the division your papers create’.
Government sources have confirmed that Home Secretary Priti Patel wants to take a ‘fresh look’ at how XR is classified under law after a stunt Boris Johnson deemed ‘completely unacceptable’.
The review could lead to XR being treated as an organised crime group, sources said, as part of a clampdown on its 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 handed beefed-up powers to stop demonstrators 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.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said he thought police already had the powers needed to deal with protests.
Speaking to Sky News’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme, he said: ‘We always keep all of our laws under review but I think actually the laws are in place to take relevant enforcement action against criminal behaviour.’
Extinction Rebellion protestors block access of a printing house in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, leaving some newsagents’ shelves empty on Saturday morning
The protesters have appeared to have avoided being slapped with the £10,000 fines handed out to those that breach coronavirus restrictions.
Jeremy Corbyn’s brother Piers was handed the first £10,000 fine in London for an illegal gathering after he organised a march claiming coronavirus is a hoax last week.
The 73-year-old meteorologist led more than 10,000 anti-lockdown protesters at the ‘Unite for Freedom’ rally in Trafalgar Square on Saturday.
Mr Corbyn, the older brother of the former Labour leader, was seen being hauled off by officers after the event and his Twitter account has since confirmed he was slapped with the colossal fine and ‘held for ten hours.’
He was among eight other offenders who were fined across the rest of England under new lockdown measures imposed on Friday which are designed to stop gatherings of more than 30 people.
The others that were fined had all been organising raves or house parties.
Members of Extinction Rebellion appear to have avoided that punishment.
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.’
The protest has been criticised for being politically motivated.
One XR statement said the action was about racism, as well ‘immigration policy, the rights and treatment of minority groups and dozens of other issues’.