Climate change protest: a single radical gets more media coverage than thousands of marchers

Gil Scott Heron argued that the Revolution Will Not Be Televised. Yet recently in the UK that statement is being challenged by disruptive environmental protesters unexpectedly gatecrashing live sporting broadcasts.

At the end of April, live on ITV the animal rights protesters Animal Rising delayed the country’s biggest horse race, the Grand National, by 15 minutes. And then two Just Stop Oil (JSO) protesters halted the snooker world championships during a live broadcast on the BBC by dumping orange poster paint over one of the tables.

Both actions attracted considerable media coverage. Animal Rising’s protest prompted the RSPCA to call for a review into the three horses that had died over the Grand National weekend and sparked a debate about animal exploitation.

Just Stop Oil’s protest led to a spokesperson appearing on GMB, GBNews and Talk TV to promote its cause and call Piers Morgan a “manbaby”. Both groups will probably see these outcomes as a success.

But what media coverage can peaceful protest generate? Just a few days later we had a chance to find out.

From April 21 to 24, Extinction Rebellion (XR) held four days of peaceful protest in central London attracting an estimated 60,000 people. The so-called Big One was XR’s first mass protest since the group announced a few months ago it was pausing disruptive protests.

It hoped to attract people previously put off by direct action and the possibility of arrest, in order to instead build coalitions with other environmental groups and gain positive headlines.

Additionally, XR and 50 other environmental pressure groups had co-signed a letter collectively demanding that the government should abandon new fossil fuel projects and create a new “emergency citizens’ assembly” to lead climate solutions.

Person in green costume
Person in green costume

But it’s not clear that Extinction Rebellion’s new approach actually worked. Certainly if the idea was to attract more or better headlines, the results seem underwhelming.

The media was already unsympathetic

Even before the Big One had started, right-wing press coverage was already unsympathetic. Most articles tended to omit the fact that XR was promising a peaceful protest, instead scaremongering that 45,000 eco-fanatics were coming at the weekend to close down London.

Plus journalists claimed there was a good chance that the London Marathon would be targeted. In response XR pledged to protect the marathon from disruption.

But even that was not enough, with the Daily Mail arguing that by not protesting the marathon XR had merely decided not to “be the bad guys for once”. The MailOnline ran one positive article but alongside a negative piece warning that coachloads of “grinning eco zealots” planned to closedown London.

In fact XR only got two front covers across the whole weekend. The first was in the Sun which had exclusive photos of one of the group’s original members, whom it labelled a “towering hypocrite”, parking at Waitrose in a 1.5 litre diesel car and buying plastic wrapped fruit and veg. The other was a story in the Mail on Sunday, which warned “eco zealots” were among those planning to protest the coronation.

Even the Guardian’s coverage was understated. On the first day of the protest, the paper published an article highlighting supporters attracted by the group’s new tactics, but raising questions about its plan to return to civil disobedience if the government did not meet its demands.

The following day the Guardian offered no coverage other than a report reproduced from the Press Association, an editorial decision that prompted a livid XR spokesperson to criticise the paper on Novara Media. On the final day, the paper ran a comment piece supportive of XR, albeit after the protests had finished.

Mainstream TV coverage was largely nonexistent. An estimated 60,000 people representing XR marched peacefully through London without a single arrest. Yet this went entirely unreported on the Saturday evening news across Channel 4 and the BBC.

On Monday, after everything was over, Channel 4 did run a short piece. The Channel 4 reporter’s summation was that The Big One was a cross between a music festival and a village fete.

Disruptive protest attracts attention

Across the weekend, the #TheBigOne hashtag was dominated by XR protesters arguing that disruptive protest is reported but non-disruptive is not. Academic research backs this up, showing a clear imbalance in the media coverage of disruptive and non-disruptive protest.

Theorists call this the “protest paragdim” and it serves two purposes: feeding a media that thrives on spectacle and outrage, while also helping to vilify protesters.

This may not harm the climate movement as much as you’d expect. A Just Stop Oil spokesperson has stated: “We are not personally interested in being popular”. My own ongoing research on younger climate activists suggests they won’t be put off as within XR they are able to decide what protest they will and will not participate in.

The government has rushed through laws imposing tougher sentences for those arrested protesting, supposedly to protect the king’s coronation.

Activists in their teens and 20s who I have interviewed for my PhD argued that tougher laws could simply make them more radical, and academic research has shown that increased jail time as a deterrence often does not work. Indeed, these “Gen Z” climate activists could grow up to become more radical as the laws – and climate breakdown itself – make the stakes higher.

In my research, young activists often mention the Swedish academic Andreas Malm and his book How To Blow Up A Pipeline, a provocative polemic that has now been adapted into a fictional ecological thriller with climate saboteurs as the “goodies”.

Cult films like this could, over time, set climate activists against oil and gas infrastructure. How far away would XR’s village fete seem then?

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Andrew Matthew Macdonald does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.