Press born again the night Fleet Street died

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Labour Editor

Ten years ago this week, Rupert Murdoch took Britain's national newspaper industry by the throat, shook it and deposited it at Wapping, just east of Tower Bridge.

In one weekend, Mr Murdoch put the all-powerful print unions to the sword and - much to their incredulity - produced and distributed his four titles without their assistance.

Along with the historic defeat of the miners in the coal strike which ended a year earlier, it was a defining moment in Thatcherism. Rarely has an industry been transformed with such speed and audacity.

On the night of 24 January, the most productive presses in Fleet Street fell silent for the last time. Twenty-four hours later and three miles to the east "Fortress Wapping", surrounded by razor wire and patrolled by security guards, printed the News of the World and the Sunday Times. A day later the Times and the Sun followed.

National newspapers were never the same again. Mr Murdoch's coup enabled the rest of Fleet Street to dispense with their antique production methods, though some looked down their noses at his methods. In addition, new titles, such as the Independent, would arguably never have been launched.

Without the intervention of the "chapel fathers" of the Sogat and NGA print unions, journalists and advertising staff were able to cast aside their typewriters. Keying straight into computer screens they could set their copy in print.

Only Eddy Shah and his Today newspaper had been able to bring new technology to national newspapers. But Mr Shah was a minnow to Mr Murdoch's shark.

The weekend flit to Wapping provoked a year-long conflict which became a cause celebre among union activists and led to violent picket line clashes.

Print union leaders and the chapel fathers had been out-witted. The 5,000 print workers had voted to strike in protest at the conditions demanded by management negotiators to run the Wapping plant - and they were dismissed. A day before the Fleet Street presses stopped, Mr Murdoch twisted the knife by insisting that the deal - including total flexibility, a no-strike clause and powers to hire and fire at will - would have to apply to the old sites he had no intention of maintaining. A union offer to give him most of what he wanted came too late.

Before 1985 Fleet Street had been a byword for restrictive practices. There was overmanning and the elite of the printers were on wages equivalent to pounds 100,000 a year today.But proprietors acceded to union demands because the high costs kept out competitors.

The Wapping complex had been built some 10 years before Mr Murdoch's patience snapped. Unions wanted their old conditions preserved if they moved east, causing a decade of desultory negotiations. However, a year or so before the dispute, Mr Murdoch began recruiting for Wapping under the guise of the London Post - a newspaper he had no intention of publishing.

The subterfuge took on the atmosphere of international espionage. Hand- picked executives and journalists helped to ready the plant for the move and the rebel Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunication and Plumbing Union helped recruit the shadow workforce.

The whole process illustrated Mr Murdoch's managerial genius. From the point of view of his sacked employees, however, it was an evil genius. Wapping had a human cost.

Union representatives talk of broken marriages, nervous breakdowns and suicides which they believe can be directly attributed to the dispute. And they accuse the police of exceeding their brief as peace-keepers in enforcing Tory labour laws designed to crush the unions.

The unions say that the pay and conditions of most involved in national newspapers have since been driven down.

But there is an intriguing post-script to the story. Under present Labour Party plans, employers would have to recognise and negotiate with unions in any workplace where a majority of employees want it.

The new GPMU print union already has members inside Wapping. Could Mr Murdoch be forced once more to negotiate with his old enemies?