The prime minister, Boris Johnson, has accused Extinction Rebellion of seeking “to limit the public’s access to news” after the group blockaded two UK printworks, delaying the distribution of major national newspapers.
The activists, who staged the action to highlight the failure by the media to “report on the climate and ecological emergency”, were also condemned by the home secretary, Priti Patel, for “attacking democracy”.
More than 100 protesters used vehicles and bamboo structures to block roads outside the Newsprinters printing works at Broxbourne, in Hertfordshire, and Knowsley, near Liverpool, on Friday evening.
Hertfordshire police said delivery lorries had not left the Broxbourne site as of 6am on Saturday, and that 42 arrests had been made.
The presses print the Murdoch-owned News Corp’s titles, including the Sun, Times, Sun on Sunday and Sunday Times, as well as the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, and the London Evening Standard.
A spokeswoman for Newsprinters said printing had transferred to “industry partners” overnight and that staff were working to get newspapers delivered to retailers as soon as possible.
“We apologise sincerely to any readers of the Sun, the Times, the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and the Financial Times who may be unable to buy their usual newspaper this morning due to late deliveries,” she said.
“This attack on all of the free press impacted many workers going about their jobs. Overnight print workers, delivery drivers, wholesale workers and retail newsagents have faced delays and financial penalty. This is a matter for the police and the Home Office.”
The Federation of Independent Retailers said the protest left small businesses with “angry customers” to deal with as well as affecting home delivery services.
Stuart Reddish, the body’s national president, said: “Many members have reported that their newspaper deliverers have been left hanging around as their deliveries have failed to arrive. It also means we are unable to get newspapers to our elderly and vulnerable customers.
“Newsagents have played a critical role during Covid-19 in getting newspapers into the hands of readers and this is not helpful at a time when every sale counts.”
Industry sources told the Guardian that other newspaper publishers swiftly helped pick up capacity to limit the disruption to distribution.
The Daily Mirror parent company Reach, Dundee’s DC Thomson, regional paper group JPIMedia, and the Daily Mail owner DMGT all provided capacity at their print plants to get as many copies of Murdoch-owned papers out to shops as possible.
Newsagents were provided with a letter apologising for the disruption and calling it an attack on the free press. Regional distribution was patchy. Many shops received piles of weekend supplements for the Times and the Daily Telegraph, which are printed in advance, but not copies of the main newspaper.
A small number of Guardian home-delivery subscribers were affected. A Guardian News & Media spokesperson said: “Our home-delivery service is provided by Newsprinters, a subsidiary of News UK, so a small proportion of our print subscribers who get the Guardian delivered directly to their homes faced some delays in receiving the paper this morning, and will not have received supplements.”
They added: “We fully support the right to protest – but we do not condone any action that restricts the public’s right to access journalism and buy whichever newspaper they choose.”
Local newspapers printed at the Broxbourne site were also affected, with East Anglian titles produced by the publisher Archant missing from shelves on Saturday.
Johnson wrote on Twitter: “A free press is vital in holding the government and other powerful institutions to account on issues critical for the future of our country, including the fight against climate change.
“It is completely unacceptable to seek to limit the public’s access to news in this way.
Patel also responded to the protest in a tweet, saying: “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.”
Under a banner reading “Free the truth”, XR tweeted that it was using the disruption to expose the newspapers’ “failure to report on the climate and ecological emergency, and their consistent manipulation of truth to suit their own agendas”.
Alanna Byrne, from Extinction Rebellion, said: “We will only tackle the climate and ecological emergency by breaking the traditional impasse of oppositional politics and coming together, despite our differences.
“If we are to sort out this mess we’re in, the mainstream media must stop profiting from clickbait culture that is swimming in misinformation, that makes us hate our neighbours, suspect foreigners and vulnerable groups, and rally the nation into action.”
Gully Bujak, an XR activist, said: “The climate emergency is an existential threat to humanity. Instead of publishing this on the front page every day as it deserves, much of our media ignores the issue and some actively sow the seeds of climate denial.”
Hertfordshire police said officers were called to Great Eastern Road near the Broxbourne plant at about 10pm, where they found about 100 protesters who had “secured themselves to structures and one another”.
Hertfordshire police assistant chief constable, Owen Weatherill, said: “The rights to protest are well established in this country and we remain committed to facilitating peaceful protest and ensuring compliance. However, at this time, the group are not engaging with us and the protest is causing major disruption to local businesses.”
XR protesters also held a smaller demonstration near Motherwell aimed at disrupting the distribution of Saturday’s Scottish Sun newspaper.
The Society of Editors executive director, Ian Murray, called the Extinction Rebellion protest “foolish and anti-democratic”.
“The irony of protesters who wish to have their voices heard and their message listened to attempting to silence others by preventing the distribution of newspapers would be laughable if it was not so serious,” he said.
“You have to wonder whether those planning and taking part in these foolish actions understand anything from history; that controlling or shutting down free speech and an independent media is the first action of totalitarian regimes and dictators.”
A News Corp source defended the company’s stance on climate, saying that Saturday’s Sun carried an opinion piece by David Attenborough on how to tackle the climate crisis. The company was also moving to scrap all single-use plastic used to wrap its titles.
On Saturday, the climate activists gathered in Trafalgar Square for a “Citizens Assemble!” event to listen to speeches about the climate emergency. Attendees were asked to move on by police officers moving through the crowds.
Outside Buckingham Palace, other members of the climate group staged a “discobedience” – a two-hour danceathon to encourage the royal family to intervene on climate issues.