Why my recent experience with the Murdoch press has led me to launch #BoycottMurdoch

During the recent Extinction Rebellion, I had a wake-up call experience with the Murdoch press.

This piece concerns that nature of what I found.

It started when the Times published a piece that was headlined “Climate protests ‘threatened by parasitic hard-left groups’.” The article was basically an interview with me. The headline purported to quote me. But what it said was false. I never used the word “threatened” — indeed the body of the article quoted me as saying what I actually said: the opposite. Namely, that the efforts of the parasitical ‘Socialist Workers Party’ to make some inroads into Extinction Rebellion weren’t working at all.

So, this Times article was headlined with a made-up quote that said the opposite of what I actually think and said.

The Sunday Times are notorious for misrepresenting activists. So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that things got worse next in a Sunday Times article misleadingly titled “Hard left infiltrates Greta’s UK army; Yesterday’s printing plant blockade has highlighted how the eco movement is becoming a tool of political extremists”. This was a full hit-piece, in the wake of the heroic successful blockade of the Murdoch printing works by XR. In its desperate attempt to paint Extinction Rebellion as having been infiltrated by the hard-Left, the S. Times said, “Extinction Rebellion’s spokesman, Rupert Read, 54, was forced to warn that “parasitical organisations’’ such as the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party, were seeking to “use” the movement to promote socialism and foment anti-capitalist protest.” This was completely misleading: because again they omitted the part where I stated to the Times that these attempts were proving entirely unsuccessful. Basically — and anyone who has ever been involved with a ‘progressive’ cause will understand what I am talkign about here — the SWP hang around on the edges of XR rallies, as they have hung around at any actually-popular radical cause for donkey’s years. But they get nowhere, with XR.

Later in the same piece, the S. Times tried to make it sound as if, as a result of this (non-existent) infiltration of XR by the SWP, I was against the XR blockade of the Murdoch press. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is a matter of public record that, like nearly everyone in XR, I was and am passionately in favour of the 12-hour blockade, an entirely necessary attempt to wake up the world to the demonstrable, catastrophic impact of the Murdoch-owned press on climate-action. The S. Times wrote, “What few activists appeared to have prepared for, however, was the loss of support not from newspaper editors and politicians — but XR itself. Read stressed that XR belonged to no single ideology and suggested that its core aim was far from revolution.” This paragraph is structured to make it sound as if XR has lost support from me / from ‘moderate’ rebels over this action. It is written to sound as if XR has become beholden to a Left ideology, and that that is why the blockade happened. All untrue. Like nearly everyone in XR, I was behind the bold but token disruption of the Murdoch press, for one day, to make the point that we risk a permanent, fatal disruption of our society, by climate and ecological breakdown.

These articles amounted to disgraceful, truly terrible journalism, deliberately designed to undermine climate-activism by distorting the truth beyond recognition. The Murdoch press proved XR’s very point: that even their flagship publications just cannot be trusted to report accurately, on all things climate.

I pointed all this out in informal complaints to the Murdoch journalists who wrote the stories, in formal complaints to both newspapers, and in letters to the editor of both papers. These were not published, and no replies have been received to my formal complaints. I am in the course of complaining to the official press regulator, but I hold out little hope of any justice from them. They are of course a toothless body run by the very newspaper groups they purport to regulate. We need the kind of body that Lord Leveson sought to create (out of his inquiry into the press that emerged from the phone-hacking scandal), but which politicians are too scared to try to implement.

I set the record straight on LBC, but by then the damage had been done: the nonsensical Murdoch stories had been repeated unchallenged on the BBC’s Marr show.

This is how it works. This is how they take the truth, turn it into lies, and spread it everywhere. (The Murdoch distortions that I’ve detailed above were taken up and repeated elsewhere in the echo-chamber of the billionaire press: in the Telegraph, the Mail, the Express…) If you’re thinking that the press doesn’t matter so much, because it is a declining industry, you’re wrong: they matter because they still get taken seriously by the broadcast media — and (thus) beyond. Example: Wasn’t it pretty sinister that Tory ministers joined the media offensive with wild threats to have XR reclassified as an ‘organised crime group.’

There’s no excuse for any of this behaviour from the titans of the ‘free press’. But it’s systematic. It’s normal. The difference, for me, is that until recently I had never felt the full force of it applied to myself. That does tend to radicalise one’s view.

So I’m launching a (for now!) one-person campaign to #boycottMurdoch. This behaviour from the media is the kind of thing up with which I can no longer put… I will no longer be a source for Murdoch (and no longer buy their papers).

Because we need to remove (or pressure to reform) the cancerous Murdoch noise-machine from our polity, if we are to have any hope of facing up together to climate reality, in time.

Where does this leave decent people — and there are some — in the employ of Rupert Murdoch? What should journalists in the employ of the Murdoch empire do? I’d say they have three options:

  1. Carry on doing the best they can from the inside. My experience is that the Times journalists I’ve worked with in the last few years have mostly tried to do a fair job. But their work is constantly undone by headline-writers, leader-writers, editors — their superiors, in other words. Another example from my personal experience: the Sunday Times did a decent profile piece on me last summer. But it was spoiled somewhat by a ludicrous headline which again centred upon a plain-made-up quotation that misrepresented me. It may be that the best thing decent journalists employed by Murdoch can do is carry on and do the best they can. But I for one don’t see the point of dealing with them only to constantly have everything twisted against one.
  2. Resign. This may sound drastic, but it is what a decent number of Murdoch staff have already done over the past couple of years. And James Murdoch has kind-of led from the front on this, by quitting his own family’s empire over its appalling climate-denial.
  3. Become a double-agent. Stay in your job, but go further than just trying to do it as well as you can in an intolerable situation: additionally, feed information back to those who are desperate to get the media to tell the truth; leak what is happening behind in the scenes in the newsroom; warn those who are going to be facing a ‘hit’-piece…

This third possibility is the most intriguing. If even a tiny handful of journalists started doing things like that, it could create a tantalisingly changed dynamic, in challenging the press’s power-without-responsibility.

I expand upon why the #boycottMurdoch campaign might just work, in the Byline Times piece to which this piece of mine in Medium is merely the prequel…: If you’ve got this far, please read that!: https://bylinetimes.com/2020/09/21/im-boycotting-murdoch-until-climate-truth-is-front-page-news/ .

p.s. I am stepping back from Extinction Rebellion, in order to mount this charge against Murdoch’s empire of lies. I don’t want to implicate XR in what is a personal stance.

But I’m also hoping that it won’t be a merely personal stance for long. If you agree with the thrust of what I am saying here, please share this article, using the #boycottMurdoch hashtag… Let’s see where we can take this… Thanks!

Reader of Philosophy at UEA. Author, ‘Parents for a future’. Former national spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion.