The Wapping era is over, but it has shaped the future

Murdoch's latest printing move reflects the tide of change in the industry, says Raymond Snoddy

The conversation I had over lunch with a News International executive in early January 1986 was cautious and elliptical. Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of the company that owned The Sun and The Times, was due in London and he was not going to leave until things were finally sorted out. Helicopters had been lined up, so the story went, to ensure access was not cut off to the new plant in Wapping just east of the Tower of London.

At that time it was far from clear what the executive meant. After all, the public plan was merely to publish a new London newspaper from the site - surely that could not result in such mayhem? He clearly felt though that he had said too much and the first thing he did on return to his new Wapping offices was to erase any record of the lunch from his desk diary - just in case.

On 16 January, it became all too clear what Rupert Murdoch had planned when his printers were provoked into walking out - never to return - by terms they found totally unacceptable for introducing new technology. Over the following weekend journalists from Murdoch titles such as The Times found to their astonishment that a desk, telephone and computer screen had each been prepared for them individually in a disused rum warehouse.

It turned into one of the most bitter, violent and long-running industrial disputes of the Thatcher era. But the high-risk move to Wapping also revolutionised the economics of newspaper production, increased competition and allowed new titles, including The Independent to be created.

Asked many years later why he remained such a controversial and even hated figure in the UK, Rupert Murdoch replied that it was "mainly Wapping", exacerbated by some of the wilder efforts of The Sun.

The supreme irony now is that, only 18 years later, Wapping itself has been overtaken by events, the demands of the market and advances in printing technology. The £600m investment programme announced last week will result in another generation of Murdoch printers losing their jobs as new, highly automated plants which need far fewer people to operate are constructed at Enfield in north London and sites in Glasgow and Knowsley, near Liverpool.

A site close to the centre of London, such as Wapping, is no longer practical for the large-scale production and distribution of newspapers, although the plan is for journalists to remain there. But as Les Hinton, the executive chairman of News International argues, it is no longer necessary to have printing presses in the same location as a paper's journalists.

You can sometimes still encounter occasional echoes of the original Wapping bitterness in the back of a London taxi when the driver turns out to have been a sacked Murdoch printer.

This time round it is very unlikely that anyone will bother picketing. It has all been announced a long time in advance, no one will lose their jobs for at least two years and the redundancy terms will be decent.

Since the original "Battle of Wapping" not only has the power of the trade unions been progressively eroded but society has become increasingly inured to periodic waves of job losses - and even the loss of entire industries - because of technological advances and migration of jobs.

As a result of the original move to Wapping, and thanks ultimately to Murdoch, all the other national newspaper groups were able to transform their labour relations and use of technology without losing a single issue of their titles. It all helped to fund a move out of cramped Victorian quarters in Fleet Street and gave the newspaper industry almost two decades of once unimaginable, relative prosperity.

As a result, pessimists who suggested that by the year 2000 only a handful of national newspapers would be left have been proved spectacularly wrong. And although most of the new titles such as Today and the Sunday Correspondent didn't ultimately make it, there is still remarkable choice for readers in every sector.

In an age of 24-hour electronic news from both television, radio and the internet it is unlikely that so many newspapers would have survived but for the changes triggered by Wapping.It is now clear the newspaper industry is facing another period of rapid change and reinvestment as it faces unprecedented pressure on circulations. For The Guardian new presses are being installed so that the paper can move from broadsheet to a smaller, medium-sized continental format based on the Berliner newspaper in Germany.

For Rupert Murdoch, who once believed that no one needed colour in newspapers, part of the attraction of such a huge investment is the ability to offer the full colour production that advertisers want.

Yet again, this time in a gentler way, Murdoch is lifting the bar for all his competitors. The new weapons will be 22 MAN-Roland presses each capable of running 120 pages of full colour and 86,000 copies an hour.

But perhaps the greatest significance of last week's announcement is that it demonstrates in the most eloquent way possible that Rupert Murdoch, the owner of television stations and satellite channels around the world, still believes in the future of print.