Murdoch may abandon "Fortress Wapping"

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The Independent Online

"Fortress Wapping", the heavily defended newspaper plant in London's Docklands which was used by Rupert Murdoch to break the power of the trade unions, may become a multiplex cinema. The media baron is scouring South-east England for new print sites, prompting speculation that his newspapers will leave the building which became a symbol of the labour movement's decline.

Violent battles with sacked print workers broke out when Mr Murdoch switched production of his newspapers ­ including The Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun and News of the World ­ to Wapping in 1986. But, despite months of mass picketing against the non-union labour inside the plant, about 4,000 production staff never got their jobs back. This dealt a final blow, not only to the previously all-powerful print unions, but to the overall labour movement already wounded by the failure of the miners' strike the previous year.

The media baron's coup brought modern technology into national newspapers for the first time, making possible the launch of The Independent the same year. If the Murdoch papers quit Wapping after 15 years, it would demonstrate how much things have changed in Britain. It would also bring back mixed memories for hundreds of journalists who had 48 hours to choose between their employer and the unions.

"You could come to work on foot, with the police holding back the pickets," said one senior executive with the Sunday Times. "But you had to leave in a car or the company bus, because people were followed and beaten up. The confrontations were worst on Saturday nights, when you would have to race out in convoy under a hail of rocks, bottles and fencing posts used as spears. On one hand it was a serious trial of strength with the unions, but for us it was also a kind of buccaneering time ­ the sort of life on the edge that journalists enjoy."

About 50 to 60 "refuseniks" declined to go to Wapping. David Felton, 50, now the Independent titles' internet editor, was among them. "For some weeks we went through the charade of reporting for work at The Times' old building in Gray's Inn Road," he recalled. "The company even issued us with new passes, but the place was in darkness, with only a handful of people left behind to close the building down. At the end of the month they stopped paying us, and we left. I did go to Wapping a few times to picket the plant."

After many months of often violent clashes, the unions gave in to the combined might of Mr Murdoch's resources and the Thatcher government's hostility. The irony is that the site in Wapping, then a dreary part of London's run-down East End, has become valuable real estate with the development of Docklands. A nearby property was recently sold for £100m, and News International is reported to have planning permission for a cinema complex where its printing plant now stands.

The move, if it took place, would be purely for business reasons. The equipment at Wapping is now somewhat dated, and executives of News International, Mr Murdoch's newspaper publishing arm, are understood to believe that the papers could be distributed more efficiently if they were printed at a number of sites away from the congestion of central London. A spokeswoman for News International said: "We have no immediate plans to move from Wapping. But we are always looking at opportunities to develop our product, and that might well [include] keeping a lookout for new sites."