A new exhibition about the media mogul's war with the print unions in 1986 throws up some fascinating historical parallels.
by Jon Henley
The police were plainly on his side. Lawyers helped, too, with a letter he used to justify his strategy. And of course the government of the day bent over backwards to ensure nothing would stand in the way of the media baron's ambitions.
All three of those statements might apply to the scandal that this month engulfed Rupert Murdoch's News International, as the scale of illegal phone hacking at News of the World – and of police inaction, and government complacency – became clear.
But they could equally describe an earlier, very different scandal. Twenty-five years ago, one of the most bitter and violent disputes in British industrial history was in full swing. For those with an eye for historical parallels, the battle of Wapping offers several.
"It was a war, and we lost it," says Ron Garner, who worked in the Sun warehouse, in packaging and distribution. "We were led into a trap, and we played into his hands. I always say in my life there was a before and an after Wapping. It was a huge milestone, whatever way you look at it."
The war broke out on 24 January 1986, when nearly 6,000 newspaper workers went on strike following the collapse of talks on News International's plans to move its editorial and printing operations to a new plant in east London. Immediately, all were served with notices of dismissal.
Overnight, Murdoch then moved the Times, Sunday Times, Sun and News of the World to the new site, dubbed "fortress Wapping", and hired members of the rogue Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union to man it. He did this, he explained in a speech a few years later, because Britain's powerful print unions "had a noose round the neck of the industry, and they pulled it very tight".
In the mid-80s, most British newspapers were still produced using hot metal, despite the widespread use elsewhere of modern offset litho technology. Whereas Murdoch's papers in Australia and America could be produced with four or five men to a printing press, he said, in London it took 18. Most were paid "full-time wages for part-time jobs", and many held down second jobs on the side: cabbies, mechanics, even morticians.
As part of the move to Wapping, Murdoch demanded the unions accept flexible working, agree to a no-strike clause, adopt new technology and abandon their closed shop. They refused. Mass demonstrations outside the new plant were met by large numbers of police, whose methods – aimed at ensuring strike-breaking workers could get into the plant, and newspapers could leave it – were widely criticised as excessively heavy-handed.
"That's my recollection," says Garner. "I'd been involved in quite a few disputes, strikes and pickets. I'd always got on quite well with the police. And I'd seen the miners the previous year, and I'd thought, they're over the top, overreacting. But then I saw the way the police treated us at Wapping, the women too, secretaries and the like, and I saw something had changed. The police were using violence to discourage people from demonstrating."
Just over a year later, the strikers were exhausted and demoralised, and the unions were facing bankruptcy and court action. Some 1,262 people had been arrested and 410 police injured. News International had not lost one day of production, and the balance in British industrial relations had shifted.
"Whatever you think of the print unions, whether they did have too much power – and lots of people thought they did – you look at the situation now, and you can only say: there's no worker protection at all. None," says Garner.
For some, Wapping planted a decisive nail in the coffin of what Andrew Neil, a former Murdoch editor, has described as "all that was wrong with British industry: pusillanimous management, pig-headed unions, crazy restrictive practices, endless strikes and industrial disruption, and archaic technology". This dispute, Neil says, "changed all that".
Many in the newspaper business – including some who criticised Murdoch at the time – now concede that the end of Fleet Street's Spanish practices probably helped prolong the life of the British press by a good few decades. (Others, including the many "refuseniks" who declined to move to Wapping, argue the dispute shattered journalistic self-respect for ever, subjugating journalists once and for all to the will of the bean-counters.)
Those who lost their jobs in 1986, who included support workers as well as printers, and the trade unionists who are recalling Wapping with an exhibition of photos, documents and personal accounts, still smart. They point out that Murdoch could not have acted as he did without the benefit of Margaret Thatcher's legislation to curb the power of the unions, nor the police's zeal to enforce it with batons and shields and horseback charges.
They note the letter – featured in the exhibition – from the company's lawyers, advising News International on how to provoke a dispute, and then how to fire more than 5,000 people without risk of legal repercussion. An early instance, says the TUC, of the kind of unholy alliance between lawyers, police, government and News International that exemplifies the "malign and corrosive" influence of Rupert Murdoch on the British establishment.
Wapping, says TUC general secretary Brendan Barber, "is a story of betrayal, connivence and the use of force used against working people . . . but also of solidarity, determination and ingenuity in the face of massive odds. Most importantly, it's a reminder of the lengths to which Murdoch and News International have gone to get their way to extend their empire and influence, brooking no opposition from either workers or politicians."