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UK media whipped up anti-immigration hatred, now draws flak from climate protesters

By Peter Markham*
Climate change is threatening the future of life on earth as we know it. It feels that more grim evidence emerges almost every day to reinforce the fear that we are hurtling towards irreversible existential dangers. It can be hard therefore to understand why this is not the lead story of every publication, every day of the week. The world’s top line feels well and truly buried. And so, early in September, the global environmental movement Extinction Rebellion decided to take on the UK’s press.
Protestors blocked exits to their print works. They did this to hold some British publications to account for not giving the climate crisis the coverage they felt it deserved. As well as this, the protests were a way to draw attention to the way some papers have been whipping up hatred, particularly on issues such as immigration.
Media mogul Rupert Murdoch is the man behind two of the UK’s most popular papers, the Sun and the Times. He’s often rebuked for being a ‘climate change denier.’ His publications are happy to promote climate skepticism both in the UK and Australia: all that helps to protect his personal interests in the fossil fuel industry.
The internal dramas within the Murdoch family over succession to the media dynasty are a film-maker’s dream. They have also, perhaps at times unwittingly, helped shine a light on the power and influence of the Murdoch empire on the public’s perception of climate change. Younger son James Murdoch, once a potential heir apparent, has publicly attacked the family business’s record on its climate crisis coverage, for example.
Direct action against supposedly ‘independent publications’ is a bold step and will inevitably make some feel uncomfortable. So it is perhaps unsurprising that following the protests were a slew of recriminations, with Extinction Rebellion accused of being a threat to democratic freedoms, including a ‘free press.’
The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson was one of the first to wade in, stating that it was ‘completely unacceptable to seek to limit the public’s access to news in this way’ and that a free press is ‘vital’ in order to hold ‘the government and other powerful institutions to account.’
The problem is that this oversimplifies things and does not take into account the biases that exist in the UK’s media because of the way much of it is now run. Popular publications are not holding the powerful to account because they are controlled by some of the very people who need to be challenged.
The UK’s so-called ‘free press’ is in decline and has been for a long time. The whole concept is a hark back to a bygone era when there were ‘bobbies on the beat’ and the internet was the stuff of dreams. Today, much of the UK’s media is run by the rich and powerful who have their own vested interests. It means that ‘the business’ must be protected at any cost with political agendas often simultaneously set through the UK’s leading publications.
A few years ago, Peter Oborne, The Daily Telegraph’s chief political commentator, resigned over what he felt were conflicts of interest within the publication. He made a withering attack against the paper because of the lack of coverage given to the HBSC tax story. He claimed the paper had repressed any copy critical of the bank after it suspended its advertising with the paper. That had happened after a Telegraph investigation into some of HSBC’s affairs.
Billionaire ownership seems to go hand in hand with publications which lean to the political right. Such publications supported right-wing political parties in the 2019 general election.
We are living in times when a Conservative government has been willing to use heavy-handed tactics to gag parts of press it doesn’t like
A recent study carried out by Loughborough University showed that the Conservatives were the only party to get more positive than negative coverage across all newspapers. The study also found that positive Conservative coverage went hand in hand with the editorial support from newspapers with the largest circulation, the Daily Mail and the Sun. By contrast, Labour got more coverage but much of that was negative.
The run-up to the 1997 general election showed just how influential the mainstream media has become in British politics. It’s well-known that the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, went on a charm offensive with Rupert Murdoch. He managed to get the Sun to do an ‘about-turn’ and back Labour in the polls. The result was a crushing defeat for the Conservatives.
The backgrounds of those with important jobs in the UK media has done little to help promote a balanced and diverse range of views. In fact, drilling down makes for uncomfortable reading. One report found that 51% of the UK’s leading journalists and 80% of Editors are privately educated. Another found that the journalism industry as a whole is 94% white leading one commentator to describe the UK’s media as ‘pale, male and posh.
Boris Johnson’s criticism of Extinction Rebellion’s protests as a threat to the UK’s ‘free press’ has more than a whiff of hypocrisy about it. It was less than a year ago and just before the general election that he made a threat to revoke Channel 4’s licence.
He had refused to take part in its ‘leaders debate’ on the climate emergency. Channel 4 responded by putting a melting ice sculpture where he had been invited to stand. That provoked the Tories into launching a formal complaint with Ofcom, with the added threat of trying to revoke Channel 4’s public broadcasting licence.
Earlier this year, the Tory government was accused of using Trump-like tactics to avoid being challenged at press briefings. It tried to exclude reporters from publications that have been critical of it. This led to all the other journalists walking out together to prevent the government from deciding who reports on what it does.
We are living in times when a right-wing Conservative government has been willing to use heavy-handed tactics to gag parts of the press it doesn’t like. At the same time, popular publications with a right-wing bias are controlled by media moguls with both their own political agenda and business interests they are keen to protect at all costs. It's a toxic combination which has led to groups like Extinction Rebellion feeling that they have no option other than direct action in order to get their voices heard.
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*Writer for the Immigration Advice Service - an immigration law firm which assists with British citizenship applications and more

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