Dominic Raab has hit out at Diane Abbott saying her comparison of Extinction Rebellion’s blocking the delivery of some of the UK’s major newspapers to the suffragettes was "perverse".
The former shadow Home Secretary defended the environmental campaign group’s blockades at various newsprinters blocking the day’s papers from leaving the depots on Friday as "legal tactics", despite 80 people being arrested.
Abbott told Sky News: "I think it's important to remind ourselves that direct actions which is what those actions were are actually legal.
"These are legal tactics and we don't want to talk as if it's not illegal to take direct actions because direct action has been legal since the time of the suffragettes."
“They are protesters and activists in tradition of the suffragettes and the hunger marchers of the 1930s.”
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.
The blockade prevented delivery vans from leaving presses which publish 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.
It comes as police report they have charged 26 people with aggravated trespass.
Also speaking to Sky News, Foreign Secretary Raab said: “The idea that it is right to damage property or to intervene with free press in the name of progressive protests is perverse,” he said.
"I respect the right of peaceful protests but highjacking that with a militant agenda to disrupt the very heart of democratic debate through free media is just totally wrong and law enforcement action is."
It comes as police charged 26 people with aggravated trespass after the protest, which meant that some newsagents’ shelves were left empty on Saturday morning after Extinction Rebellion demonstrators targeted Newsprinters’ printing works at Broxbourne in Hertfordshire and Knowsley, near Liverpool, overnight.
Merseyside Police said it had since charged 26 people, aged between 19 and 60, following a 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.
Hertfordshire Police said they had taken 50 people into custody.
"I fear when you damage the free press, that is shooting yourself in the foot."— Sophy Ridge on Sunday (@RidgeOnSunday) September 6, 2020
In response to Extinction Rebellion's protests outside printworks, @EdwardJDavey says it was not a "good message" to stop people from reading David Attenborough,#Ridge: https://t.co/NZtlQe2tCY pic.twitter.com/prkWZ2qBKF
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 to the PA news agency 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.
Reacting to the blockade on Twitter, Home Secretary Priti Patel said: “This morning people across the country will be prevented from reading their newspaper because of the actions of Extinction Rebellion.
“This attack on our free press, society and democracy is completely unacceptable.”
This morning people across the country will be prevented from reading their newspaper because of the actions of Extinction Rebellion.— Priti Patel (@pritipatel) September 5, 2020
This attack on our free press, society and democracy is completely unacceptable. https://t.co/3DfasjD6sS
Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick tweeted: “A good day to #buyanewspaper. A free press matters to all of us who value a free society. They mustn’t be silenced by an intolerant minority.”
Labour’s shadow international trade secretary Emily Thornberry told Times Radio on Saturday morning: “This is very worrying and I don’t really know what it is that is expected to be achieved and I know that for many older listeners it’s very much part of their daily life, getting their paper delivered in the morning, and I just think it’s wrong.”
Speaking to the same radio station, Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood claimed XR had “lost sight … of how to campaign” on a “very important issue”.