MOST newspaper columnists never acknowledge their mistakes. However, I hope regular readers have come to see that I make a habit of admitting my errors – not just because I want to be honest with readers at all times regardless of whether it makes me uncomfortable or embarrassed, but because it’s natural and human to change your mind, to re-evaluate your beliefs over time as new information shapes your view of the world.

To fail to do so, is to be that worst of all creatures: a dogmatic, blinkered, zealot who lies to themselves and knows it – an inhabitant of the land of the intellectually dead.
So I hope I’m one of those exotic species that vast swathes of the public now thinks is extinct, even though we’re actually an exceedingly common breed: a journalist who believes in telling the truth, even when it hurts.

None of the above makes it any easier to say that I was terribly wrong in my opinion of the environmental group Extinction Rebellion (XR). The admission saddens me deeply. An organisation which I believed could change the debate around climate change, galvanise the pubic imagination, and compel our political class to take action on the environment before it’s too late, has soured horribly in my opinion.

Long before Extinction Rebellion was big news, I was writing in support of the group. Back in November 2018, after one of their first demonstrations when XR blocked London bridges, I wrote that “I quite fancied handcuffing myself to some railings with them”. 

Read more: Andrew McKie: The worst threat to improving the environment is Extinction Rebellion

I met Scottish XR members and was taken by their suffragette-style approach to protest. XR intended to target those in power through civil disobedience, referencing the American civil rights movement and even Ghandi’s campaign for Indian independence. It would be non-violent and members were prepared to face jail. XR protesters would padlock themselves to lampposts, occupy and generally disrupt oil refineries, stage sit-ins which targeted complacent politicians. It was big business, banks and our apathetic governments in their sights. I loved the proposition, I applauded their tactics. 

My sympathy was natural – I’ve long-standing and deeply held environmental beliefs, founded on listening to and reading the world’s leading scientists and heeding their warnings that climate change will soon unravel beyond any hope of arresting it, the consequences of which will be catastrophic for humankind. I care about the grandchildren I’m yet to have and would like them to grow up in a world that’s safe.

The action by XR at the weekend, targeting the printing presses of a number of newspapers, was simply the latest in a long line of behaviour which has caused me to fall deeply out of love with this organisation. My opposition to the blockade of printing presses isn’t based on the fact I’m a journalist. XR happened to blockade newspapers I’ve no political sympathy with: Rupert Murdoch’s Sun and Times, as well as the Telegraph, Mail and Evening Standard. I’m a critic of these papers, they skew the UK media landscape too far to the right. I wrote an entire chapter once in a book of mine on the Iraq war attacking Murdoch’s media for cheerleading the invasion. There’s no love lost on my behalf when it comes to much of the London media.

However, I’m a democrat. I’ll defend freedom of speech and freedom of the press to my last breath. Preventing the distribution of newspapers is one step away from burning books. A blockade is no way to debate media plurality. I also believe in the British public’s intelligence. People buy what pleases them. Nobody should dictate what other citizens can or should read. Nor do I believe in a “svengali” media. Journalists aren’t witchdoctors. We don’t cast political spells over people. Citizens vote and think as they chose to vote and think. The public is smart enough to make up its own mind without journalists telling them how to behave.

There was also a deep idiocy at work in the newspaper protest. The issue of the Sun which XR blockaded carried an article by David Attenborough calling for more action on climate change. The blanket belief that all papers with which you disagree are bad on every count is childish nonsense. Like many haters of the press, XR’s protesters don’t even read the newspapers they attempt to critique.

On the day of the newspaper blockade The Evening Standard gave XR co-founder Gail Bradbrook an opinion column in which she talked of protest and climate change. What rank hypocrisy. 

Read more: Extinction Rebellion – heroes or hypocrites? Inside the minds of the climate warriors

But my loss of faith in XR goes back much further. The organisation quickly appeared to degenerate into a bourgeois glee club. It seemed to lack any connection to the working class – and it’s the ordinary people of Britain who need persuaded that action on climate change has to happen. I shook my head in dismay at protests where XR members clad in red dresses with white-painted faces swanned around the streets, like some dreadful trustifarian art school improv. Then XR self-destructively turned its sights on ordinary folk – clambering on to the roofs of trains to stop commuters getting to work. Of course transport is killing the environment, but persuade the people inside the train, don’t abuse them and turn them into enemies by making their struggle to earn a living more difficult. That action also had the added edge of hypocrisy. If Gail Bradbrook could fly 11,000 miles to holiday in Costa Rica why couldn’t Joe and Jane Public get the tube to work? Self-evidently, XR protests against the aviation industry.

The final straw for me, though, wasn’t the attack on a free press or the hypocrisy, idiocy, and hipster virtue-signalling, it was comments made by XR’s other co-founder Roger Hallam which emerged last week. Hallam was speaking of people in big business and governments when he said: “Maybe you should put a bullet through their head.”

I once admired XR as I thought it would take a righteous fight to those in power through non-violent civil disobedience, and win over the pubic by the force and dignity of its beliefs and behaviour. More fool me. The only saving grace is this: my commitment to fighting for the environment is stronger today than ever before. Betrayal can be a great reinforcer.