Wapping: Twenty years, twenty voices

Rupert Murdoch's audacious mass sacking of printers 20 years ago helped change the face of Britain for ever. We asked key participants for their thoughts now. Interviews by Joy Lo Dico

Sunday 22 January 2006 01:00 GMT

Just as returning soldiers prefer not to talk about the war, so those running British journalism today rarely mention their involvement in the trauma that swept through newspapers 20 years ago this week, writes Jane Thynne.

In an industry where change seems to come at breakneck speed, it appears there's no time to look backwards. Besides, everything about Wapping - the stoppages, the barbed wire, the picketing printers, the hot-metal presses - all look like museum pieces now. Like most historical revolutions, it seems impossible in retrospect to imagine that Wapping might not have happened.

As it turned out Friday 24 January 1986 was a vital date in British social history. After years of disputes with print unions, which caused endless stoppages and lost entire newspaper editions, the press baron Rupert Murdoch hatched a plan to convert a warehouse in Wapping to new technology, where journalists would input copy directly on screen and the jobs of several thousand printers would be rendered redundant.

Under cover of launching a fictitious new evening paper, the London Post, he converted the plant, securing assistance from the right-wing electricians' union and shipping in machinery via France to avoid detection. When, on that fateful Friday, the NGA and Sogat unions went on strike, the Murdoch management seized its chance.

What followed was far-reaching change - the demise of the unions, the evolution of the Labour Party and thousands of blue-collar jobs lost to new technology. For newspaper proprietors it brought nothing but good, slashing production costs and, for some titles, making the difference between survival and closure. But for journalists the impact was more ambiguous. Many saw Wapping as a lasting blow to their perception of themselves and their profession.

We asked some major players how they saw the dispute then and how they see it now.


David Banks, Assistant Editor, The Sun

The News Corp managing director Bruce Matthews drove me to a heavily guarded Wapping plant containing floor upon floor of computers, looking like something out of 'Star Trek'. I gradually built up a team of journalists - the Dirty Dozen, we were later called - who were trained in the black arts of computer-aided newspaper production.


Andrew Neil, Editor, The Sunday Times

It was the most audacious plot in newspaper history. The other day I was trying to explain Wapping to young journalists and I put my finger on a computer keyboard and said: "In 1986 I would not have been able to do that." They were amazed. They just couldn't believe it. Wapping was pretty harrowing, but what kept me going was that I was a true believer.


Rupert Murdoch, Chairman, News International

The publishers of those days got what they deserved from the unions. So I gave up trying to be part of it. I re-membered the strike the 'Daily Mirror' had a few days before. They were off the streets for 10 days, and had come back and hadn't lost any circulation. So I figured if we were big and had strong enough titles, we could face them and do a showdown.


Peter Rose, Leader Writer, The Sun

When we'd had a strike, the printers had crossed our picket lines, which meant I and others were not inclined to support them. Foolishly I decided I would walk in. They had my name and they called out "Rose, Rose, Rose, out, out, out!" I was spat at by women printers. I left journalism shortly afterwards but it was the worst period of my life and it broke my heart.


Paul Routledge, South-East Asia Correspondent, The Times

It was our 9/11, on our terms. Nothing was the same again. I was South-east Asia correspondent, covering the downfall of Marcos in the Philippines, and the first I knew was when I called in and discovered one of my editors was clearing his desk. I spoke to Charlie Wilson, who said that as I was abroad, I'd only be crossing the picket line electronically.


Charles Wilson, Editor, The Times

Newspapers up to Wapping were virtually a rich man's plaything. After Wapping, they became a viable business again. Rupert Murdoch was criticised because what he did was not "the British way". Rival newspapers wrote leaders condemning the move to Wapping while their chief executives and chairmen were calling Rupert, congratulating and thanking him.


Kelvin MacKenzie, Editor, The Sun

Without Wapping, 'The Independent' and 'The Independent on Sunday' would not exist. Wapping, along with the miners, represents the end of this country being run by unions. If printers were still around, they would be earning around half a million. It took Rupert Murdoch to draw the line. If that hadn't happened, we would still be paying the blackmail.


Donald MacIntyre, Labour Correspondent, The Times

There were a lot of NUJ meetings and the combination of tension and boredom meant I took up smoking again. Clifford Longley, the religious affairs correspondent, was in one meeting. He was on the side of going in, and I was not. He said: "There is a danger of moral vanity about the people not going in." That is a concept in Aquinas - a rather rarefied approach to the dispute.


Paul Webster, Chief Sub, Sunday Times Business Desk

Twenty years ago I was summoned with colleagues to a London hotel to be told I must report for duty at the secret new newspaper plant at Wapping in return for a bonus - or be sacked. The brutality with which the printers were fired and the casual contempt of the company towards its journalists persuaded me that I had no choice but to refuse.


Michael Jones, Political Editor, The Sunday Times

Neil Kinnock decided there should be no Labour contact with News International people, which affronted me to the depths of my soul because Parliament is a place where everyone speaks to everybody. It was put to us that we could speak undercover to Mandelson and others, but I refused to talk to them. Not everyone adhered to it.


Ivan Fallon, Deputy Editor, The Sunday Times

I woke on a camp bed in the old rum store that had become our new HQ - one of half a dozen executives charged with producing a paper on which normally several hundred journalists laboured. The recumbent figure beside me was Rupert himself, grabbing a few minutes' sleep. He was everywhere that weekend - cutting copy and bellowing instructions.


Greg Neale, Father of the NUJ Chapel, The Times

The reality after the much-heralded new dawn for national newspapers has been modest. We've still got 'The Independent'. But ventures such as the 'London Daily News', 'The Sunday Correspondent', 'The News on Sunday' and 'Today' proved all too brief. The NUJ, strained by the dispute, has still to regain all its former influence.


Isabel Hilton, Assistant Foreign Editor, Sunday Times

I was one of the refuseniks. I felt no better about Wapping from inside than I had from outside and I left six weeks later to help set up 'The Independent'. For journalists at Wapping, the problem was less the acceptance of the new print technology than the triumphalism of a management that had crushed the unions and saw its journalists as expendable.


Tony Rennell, Head Of News, The Sunday Times

I decided in moral terms there wasn't a lot to choose between the print unions and Rupert Murdoch so I might as well go with the one who was going to win. I lost friends and it was not good for my marriage but it was the making of some people. Nigella Lawson had been very junior but she walked through the door and was appointed deputy books editor.


Richard Williams, Deputy Sports Editor, The Times

I had been an editor long enough under the old system not to feel any affection for the old method of working. It didn't make me feel any better that people were being thrown out of work. I suppose I managed to rationalise it. I don't think anyone with a more scrupulous attitude to human relations than Murdoch would have undertaken it.


Brenda Dean, General Secretary, SOGAT

I was very angry. I felt that there had been a betrayal of the trade unions. Given a little more time we could have negotiated but the die had been cast by Murdoch, his supporters and the Thatcher laws. The power was all on one side, and then it switched straight to the other. It was like a pendulum, and all the moderates like myself just got swept away.


Roy Greenslade, Assistant Editor, The Sun

If that revolution hadn't occurred, some papers would have gone to the wall: the 1990 recession would have wiped out four or five. For us on the left, the failure to effect the revolution we wanted and the realities of the 1980s meant we had to know we'd lost the battle. The only way John Pilger ever spoke to me afterwards was by spitting at me.


Bert Hardy, Chief Executive, News International

The idea I sold to him [Murdoch] was that we should go into a new building because the Bouverie Street machinery was clapped out. The move would also enable us toget rid of some of the unions - though I didn't think all of them would go. Rupert saved all newspapers, not only his own - he has never been given sufficient recognition for what he did.


Michael Williams, Home Editor, The Sunday Times

I was unusual - a Wapping volunteer, joining mid-dispute from 'Today', where Eddy Shah was a stalking horse for Rupert. I didn't feel bad because I was an admirer of Eddy and had seen the wrecking tactics of the unions on 'The Times '. I hated the way pickets poured foul sexist abuse on my secretary and waited to beat up a harmless elderly colleague.


Kim Fletcher, Father of the NUJ Chapel, Sunday Times

I was never going to go to Wapping. It was easy for me because of my position with the union - it was assumed I wouldn't go, even though I was wooed. In the end the people I felt sorry for were not the printers but the blameless members of the clerical unions - secretaries and the like - who were thrown out of work and suffered. They were the victims.


Archie, class warrior

The Social Affairs Unit, the right-wing think-tank, is campaigning to save Balamory, the BBC TV series for toddlers. "Archie the Inventor is an unapologetically posh character who lives in a castle and wears a kilt," declares the SAU on its blog. "In one sense the series is Politically Correct in that there is an ethnic diversity of characters, and one of the women who works in the sweet shop is in a wheelchair. But what is unusual is that Archie, as a posh white male, is included in this 'it takes all sorts to make the world' approach. Usually the diversity of sympathetic characters is hypocritically limited by BBC programme makers anxious to instil class antagonisms at an early age. (The flowers in The Teletubbies, for instance, speak in cut-glass accents but they are cruelly sneering at the Teletubbies, giving a pretty clear message to toddlers that those with posh voices are unpleasant.)"

Huhne he? (Ed)

One can almost smell the hubris. The Oxford Mail is trying to auction to the highest bidder an exclusive picture of Liberal Democrat leadership contender Chris Huhne (pronounced who?n) engaged in a fracas during his student days. It depicts a fresh-faced Huhne trying to smash down the doors of a university building with a bench as a battering ram. However, the "scoop " doesn't seem to have fired that many imaginations. "We've had a couple of calls from nationals who have offered us less than the transmission fee," says a slightly hurt spokesman at the Mail. It's hardly Charles Kennedy drinking his first pint, is it?

Hacks at the back door

Metro has always been the unacknowledged cousin in the Associated Newspapers family. But now the freesheet is finally coming back into the fold. Hacks at Metro, who had been in Docklands, are going up West to Associated's Kensington offices. Staffers have been told they will be moving into space vacated by the Barkers store in June. But there'll be no fraternising among the staff. "We've been told that we're going to be having a separate entrance," sniffs a Metroite.

Standard substitutes

The Evening Standard has beefed up its political team. With the departure of Isabel Oakeshott to The Sunday Times, the Standard has had to draft in not one but two replacements. Joining Joe Murphy's crack team are Nic Cecil from The Sun and Pippa Crerar from the Daily Record. Associated has been bruised by recent poachings and, along with the Standard, the Daily Mail has been trying to fortify its own political team before rivals' chequebooks come out again.

Guardian's local derby

The Guardian TV critic Sam Wollaston incurred the wrath of Tottenham Hotspur supporters last week with a gratuitous reference to the club as "toxic scum". One such supporter is The Guardian's sports editor, Ben Clissitt. Two days later Wollaston ended his piece with an apology: "It was meant as a joke." But his regular readers would have known where his allegiances lay, from an intro he wrote last year, telling how he once dreamt of playing centre-forward for Arsenal.

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