A Campaign Lesson From Extinction Rebellion’s Newsgate

Chris Rose, September 2020

Earlier this year I posted a critical analysis of XR UK’s ‘revolutionary’ theory of change, mostly on grounds that it was unlikely to work and posed many risks including a values culture war.  Since the New Year, XR has apparently dropped the government-overthrow theory and adopted a new if more vaguely defined ‘strategy’.

So a revolution may not be being televised but XR UK’s post-revolutionary tactics are creating a public campaign laboratory, with a very public debate of it’s campaign tactics and strategy, rather than what to do about climate change.  What happened after its last high profile experiment action has at least one straightforward lesson for almost any campaign.

I got a fundraising email from XR the other day complaining about how it was being attacked in the media and declaring Extinction Rebellion was ‘not the story’ but in reality that is exactly the position, following its blockade of newspaper distribution on 5 September.

What Happened ?

For the benefit of readers outside the UK or others who may have missed it, XRUK held a ‘rebellion’ in early September, consisting of a fortnight of protest, mostly in London.  One action provoked a small storm of media and political debate and some public attention, when XR delayed the distribution of five national newspapers, The Sun, The Times, the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and the Financial Times, all targeted because of their coverage of climate change.

The newspaper distribution blockade got XR back ‘in the headlines’ and resulted not only in predictable criticism from the Conservative Government but also from the opposition Labour Party, and provoked a mixture of support and overt and coded criticism from previously supportive climate campaigners.  These included Craig Bennett at The Wildlife Trusts (formerly of Friends of the Earth) and John Sauven at Greenpeace.

Much of the wider comment was very similar to the reaction to XR’s ill-fated disruption of electric tube travel which hit London commuters at Canning Town in October 2019: people questioned XR’s tactics and strategy, based on the assumption that an effective campaign picks targets for action which win over rather than alienate key audiences.

Thinking Through The Third Step

At its simplest level, even the most straightforward skirmish in a public campaign usually aims to create a story which engages a public wider than just a debate between the campaign entity and the target.

Whether it’s done by taking direct action, by making a public claim, instigating a legal action or releasing the results of an investigation, campaigns attempt to create an ‘inciting incident’ which gains attention, causes a reaction, and invites judgement in the court of public opinion.  All three steps need to be thought through in advance.  Beyond that you are into territory that you can’t expect to plan for in a deterministic way, and the longer term strategy, route maps, critical paths and the like is another topic.  This much though is campaign basics:

Step 1: intervention – intended as the inciting incident

Step 2: generate public attention

Step 3: use the attention – shift public opinion your way

In this case, XR’s newspaper blockade achieved steps 1 and 2 but not step 3.

XR’s first-step was to set up the blockade. Unlike many attempts by campaign groups, this successfully created public attention: step two.

It was a disruptive act with consequences for a target which could be relied upon to react, and was well equipped to do so in terms that would be widely noticed.  The UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Daily Telegraph for example, are almost ‘joined at the hip’. All the targeted newspapers responded along with most of Britain’s media.

Yet that’s where things immediately started to go wrong, or wrong at least if you assumed that XR is trying to conduct a change campaign and not continuing with its original strategy of ‘movement’ revolution through disruption and personal ‘sacrifice’ to build public support.

Retaining The Frame

In communication terms the opportunity to frame the story is in what you say and do at step 1, and it must be sustained through step 2 and 3.

For the longer campaign to gain rather than lose momentum as a result of the skirmish, the attention created needs to validate the proposition manifest at step 1: for instance through endorsement by third parties, by generating popular acclaim, by emulation, through swelling numbers participating, or by trusted voices saying “they are right – here’s why – this is what it means”.

In this case the public attention got used alright but not so much by XR as by their chosen opposition: what it called the ‘billionaire press’, which immediately reframed it in terms that the rest of the media found hard to resist: as an attack on press freedom.

That reframing created an alternative narrative which pitched two freedoms against one another, freedom to protest against freedom of speech.  With each pulse of reaction, the story then unravelled in those terms, dividing XR’s naturally supportive values-base.

As a micro campaign-study, it’s an object lesson in what happens if you lose control of the story framing once you have generated public attention.  Did XR think this through?  That’s hard to say but it happened.

Immediate Consequences

5 September: in The Metro the newspaper block gives Boris Johnson an opportunity to say a free press is ‘vital’ to hold his government to account

Once the story was reframed as an action against press freedom, even XR-friendly campaigners faced a dilemma.  Public campaigning is a form of politics, and like politicians campaigners have a deeply pragmatic relationship with the media: a marriage of convenience based not on love but mutual advantage.

For campaigners to say nothing might imply agreement with the idea that the media should be muzzled.  The online Daily Telegraph was able to report on 6 September that:

‘Greenpeace, who backed the group when it shut down parts of central London last year, said that while XR’s core message was “undisputed”, “a free, diverse press and the right to peaceful protest are both expressions of free speech and hallmarks of a healthy democracy.”

Its executive director John Sauven added: “Greenpeace has been working with the news media for five decades, and we know the absolutely vital role they play in informing the public, exposing environmental abuse, and holding powerful interests to account”.’

The Telegraph quoted Bob Ward, of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change as saying: “The criticism XR make of these newspapers is legitimate. But this is not the right way to tackle that problem” and  Richard Black, of the Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit:

“These actions obviously get climate change in the headlines but they’re highly polarising – surveys show that while support for a clean energy transition is higher than it’s ever been across British society, a substantial proportion of the public finds XR’s methods off-putting”.

Ben Caldecott, a Government adviser on climate finance was reported as saying Extinction Rebellion risked setting back environmental policy. “It’s very hard immediately after that kind of thing to want to give the green movement, the environment movement, a big win” … “Whoever made the calls on this action made a really bad one”.

In The Independent, Tom Bawden cited CEO of The Wildlife Trusts Craig Bennett who said:

“When Extinction Rebellion appeared on the scene a year and a half ago it was fresh and brought a new energy and sense of urgency to the debate. I would hope and urge that they would always continue to do that – what they can’t be involved with is censorship …

“It’s so incredibly important that they take the public with them and try and build support, rather than distancing the public. So I hope that they are thinking very carefully about how they make sure they do that”

Bawden observed:

‘The confused nature of Extinction Rebellion’s action to blockade the printing presses of four national daily newspapers can best be summed up by a key justification for the move.

Announcing the action, XR said that Rupert Murdoch’s papers had ignored climate change to such an extent that his son James had complained – citing an article in The Telegraph as evidence of the family’s climate tension.

The problem here is that, along with Murdoch’s Times and Sun, XR activists blockaded The Telegraph, which had provided them with ammunition for their cause’.

Some influential environmental voices were raised in support of XR, for example E3G’s chairman Tom Burke (see his blog) who argued on LBC radio on 6 September that:

‘The media are getting upset that somebody is holding them to account. Extinction Rebellion is making a point that the press is unaccountable for the role it is playing in climate denial. They are not attacking the free press they are making a point’

Burke made several important points but he was having to argue against a frame that was already dominant.

Was It Predictable ?

Given that XR had visibly interrupted publication of newspapers, the ‘freedom of the press’ response was rather predictable.  Stopping newspaper production is not like blockading an oil refinery, fracking site or coal mine whose sole function is to provide things that the media and public already know to be primary sources of climate change pollution.

Although as XR itself pointed out, quoting from a YouGov poll,  many people suspect that large parts of the UK media underplay climate change or still give space to deniers, the press would not feature in a list of most people’s existing convictions of the causes of climate emergency.

Making the case that these newspapers are a contributing cause of climate change is a complex analytical process: a multi-step story and therefore not possible to do in real-time in the outwash of an action (that reportedly lasted twelve hours).  In contrast, it was self-evident that XR had impeded the free operation of the press, and to see that as justified on climate grounds, required existing convictions or some pretty clear proof.

Showing Justification

If at Step 3 in the little schematic above, XR had been able to point to third party evidence such as a political or academic enquiry into the power of climate sceptic media coverage by the targeted newspapers in driving political anti-climate decisions, or even in just significantly influencing public opinion, it might have succeeded in ‘showing justification’ but it did not.

To have ‘counted’ in the media-political news conversation, that evidence would have either had to be new, or authoritative, or both but it wasn’t.  XR explained:

‘We targeted the billionaire-owned media because they are not responding to the scale and the urgency of the climate and ecological crisis and the main reason for this is that our press is in the hands of the powerful who have vested interests, who are set on dividing us, and are in the pockets of the fossil fuel industry.  A free press is about speaking truth to power, but how can we do this when the press is owned by a powerful few?’

This is a point of view but it’s more rhetorical than evidenced.  If there had been clear binary true-or-not evidence that the press was ‘in the pockets of the fossil fuel industry’ for example, it was not provided.

If such evidence was available, another option would have been to first put the issue in play in the news agenda, for instance working with other pro-climate organisations.  For that, it would only have needed to passed a test of ‘balance of probabilities’ rather than the binary requirement of visual news.  For example if organisations like learned bodies or some widely supported NGOs such as WWF, Wildlife Trusts, Oxfam or Greenpeace had just launched a campaign against the same newspapers on climate grounds.  They could then have jumped in to make use of the attention generated.

Or the media or politicians might have conducted an investigation exposing evidence that particular climate-denying editors or owners had exercised a malign effect on climate outcomes.  None of this happened.

One reason that did not happen may be that while some of the targeted newspapers are guilty of a long and damaging record on climate content, it’s a battle many campaigners may feel is essentially won, and much of the strongest evidence is old.

The main tent of the UK climate sceptic camp started to sag back in 2018.  That’s when Fran Unsworth, head of BBC News, removed it’s main storm-guy, by ending the BBC’s policy of reporting climate change as a two-sided scientific debate.  After that, it became far harder for sceptics to get attention for their agenda, and all the newspapers XR targeted, have started running more coverage of the reality of climate change.

The Sun in 2018  

Daily Telegraph 10 September 2020

Along the lines of Napoleon’s dictum “don’t interrupt your enemy when it’s in the course of making a mistake”, campaigners may have concluded that even if these publications do sometimes still give space to sceptic views, there’s little to be gained by focusing attention on that battlefront instead of, for example, issues of implementation of decarbonization of economy and society. Indeed if XR had succeeded in making newspaper content the climate issue, it might even help sceptics by giving them the oxygen of publicity.

Kicking The Wasps Nest

Like politicians, campaigners are wary of criticizing the media unless they have very strong evidence, on the basis “don’t getting into a pissing match with a skunk”.  You may often feel it treats you unfairly but it’s a reality you need to learn to navigate.  As one politician said, ‘for a politician to complain about the press is like a ship’s captain complaining about the sea’.

Holding a particular news platform, editor or journalist to account over demonstrable deception is one thing.  Attacking news organisations en bloc is the communications equivalent of kicking a wasps nest.  A coal company may have a few press officers and a Public Affairs agency but it is mainly full of mining engineers, accountants and technical staff who know little or nothing about communications.  A news organisation is stuffed full of news communications experts, adept at playing on public perceptions, with deep and constant political access, and with little else to do but to spin stories.

The media story of XR’s blockade was immediately populated with evidence that their action was questionable.  It emerged that environmental icon David Attenborough had recorded an interview for The Sun, Britain’s biggest newspaper and owned by the Murdoch Group. Bob Ward of the Grantham Institute, probably Britain’s leading ‘climate hawk’, tweeted “unfortunately it means readers of The Sun will not see this interview with David Attenborough about climate change”.

Attenborough’s interview with The Sun

In 2019 Attenborough spoke up for Greta Thunberg and for disruptive climate activism, saying “‘You can say, “It gets you nowhere, just stopping the traffic”. But it gets you noticed. People listen to what you say. And that you’re important”.  After the newspaper blockade he said: “I don’t think it’s sensible politics to break the law”.

A Human Political Thermometer?

Does it matter that XR created headlines about itself and alienated fellow climate activists ? That depends on what you think XR is for. Perhaps not, if XR’s function is merely to act as a human political thermometer of public frustration about climate change.  The Newspaper blockade was probably the single biggest climate-related story in the UK in 2020 to date, aside from the more elite and diverse conversations around green recovery and ‘building back better’ after Covid.

One commentator has argued that XR’s critics misunderstand how campaigns work and that being unpopular with the public is a cost worth paying if you are effective.  That can be true, if you are effective but unpopularity is not in itself a measure of effectiveness.  As many journalists have done, he also cited a rising wave of public conviction for climate as a national issue as evidence of XR’s effectiveness in 2019 but that wave was growing before XR appeared, and seems more likely to have been driven by real-world climate impacts than protest.

Just generating spectacle without results, is only effective if others can exploit the attention created, and in that respect not all publicity is good publicity.  In the case of XR’s Newsgate, it created a debate about ‘protest’, mostly exploited by the opposition, not by its natural allies.

Authoritarian Responses

It was noticeable that neither Johnson nor any of his Ministers felt the need to justify their record on action to tackle climate change (or to disown media denial of climate change) as a result of the XR newspaper blockade.  Instead they could comfortably position XR as putting climate-action in peril by stifling a ‘free press’.

Home Secretary Priti Patel’s threat to classify XR as an ‘organised crime’ group was widely ridiculed on the Left and may just be the flying of an impractical kite. But Boris Johnson’s stated desire to ‘impose tighter restrictions on mass gatherings, in particular where it threatens the freedom of the press’ as “a key tenet of democracy and the law”, could lead to new police powers similar to but going beyond the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which helped finish off the 1990s ‘roads movement’ by criminalising previously civil offences.

It could also create a tempting dog-whistle opportunity for many in the ruling Conservative party.  Knowing that XR’s methods are unpopular with most of the public, and aware that they owe their political majority to MPs elected in seats such as the ‘Red Wall’ by ex-Labour voters who are strongly authoritarian, many Conservative MPs would probably support a legal crackdown on ‘climate anarchists’.

From The social and economic values of MPs party members and voters

Most of the public might not support new laws to stifle protest but most of the government’s potential voters might well do so.

The Newsgate action is also unlikely to have done anything to persuade such MPs to support the proposed Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill, promoted by XR, along with environmental luminaries such as Kumi Naidoo, Carolyn Lucas MP and 350’s Bill McKibben.

XRUK does have a lot of supporters who will come to its defence but they are mostly not influential with Britain’s government or its large Parliamentary majority.  To be effective it will need to think and act a lot more carefully, and working more closely with other pro-climate groups could be a good starting point.

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1 Response to A Campaign Lesson From Extinction Rebellion’s Newsgate

  1. Barry Woods says:

    Richard Balck is funded by the same organisation that has also funded XR
    (European Climate Foundation)

    Sir Chris Hohn also has given hundred of thousands to XR (personally, and via CIFF – Childrens Investment Foundation..)

    In one year alone CIFF gave European Climate Foundation 25,000,000

    (so PR/damage limitation comes to mind)

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