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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
News
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
people
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
News
i100
Life and Style
A statue of the Flemish geographer Gerard Kremer, Geradus Mercator (1512 - 1594) which was unveiled at the Geographical Congree at Anvers. He was the first person to use the word atlas to describe a book of maps.
techThe 16th century cartographer created the atlas
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger & Credit Control Assistant

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Ledger & Credit Control...

Recruitment Genius: Junior PHP Web Developer

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Guru Careers: Front End Web Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: Our client help leading creative agencies ...

Christine McCleave: FP&A Analyst

£36,000 - £40,000: Christine McCleave: Are you looking for a new opportunity a...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot