Fortress Wapping

Award-winning journalist John Pilger tells the real story of Rupert Murdoch’s introduction of new technology in the 1980s.

The following piece is taken from John Pilger’s book “Hidden Agendas” which is available for viewing, downloading or purchase from his website

Also check out The “Wapping Cough” which tells the story of the move to Wapping from the point of view of a journalist who made the move.

MURDOCH’S move to the ‘new brave new world’ at Wapping took place on January 24, 1986. Virtually overnight, more than 5,000 employees were abandoned. The print unions, Kelvin MacKenzie told Sun journalists, ‘haven’t got us by the balls any more’.

In exploiting resentment of the unions’ power and abuses, such as the ‘wildcat’ stoppages that had lost millions of newspapers, and the ‘Spanish practices’ that allowed some people to pick up two pay packets, Murdoch was able to persuade most of his journalists to go to Wapping. For many, this came as a welcome justification; for while there was truth in many of the stories about the unions, it was also true that newspaper managements operated their own corruption – on perks alone – and it suited them to look the other way.

In my experience, the majority of compositors, linotype operators, machine-room workers and others were honest people who worked hard in antiquated, filthy and often dangerous conditions, especially in the old Sun and News of the World headquarters in Bouverie Street. They were paid well compared with other workers; and in scandalously low-paid Britain that fact was enough to make them enemies.

In 1985, Brenda Dean was appointed General-Secretary of SOGAT, representing the industry’s clerical and ancillary workers. ‘It’s time the myths surrounding Wapping were swept away,’ she told me. ‘The first thing Murdoch made clear to me was that if I could deliver an agreement on new levels of manning, he could do business with the unions. Of course there was some resistance to new technology. But this came from people who had worked in the industry all their lives and were not permanent employees. Quite a few had no pension provision.

If they lost their jobs they wouldn’t get other employment. They wanted to know what was in it for them. But there is a world of difference between that view and saying we couldn’t conclude a deal. We could. The great majority wanted agreement. There is no doubt about that.’

Agreement reached

The unions had already successfully negotiated a comprehensive agreement with the new chief executive of the Daily Mirror, Clive Thornton. Staffing would be reduced, new technology introduced and no strike action would be taken for three years. In seeking a similar deal with Murdoch, the unions were told that News International planned to produce a new paper, the London Post, at Wapping. The unions by and large welcomed this and put forward their proposals for an ‘all-in new technology deal’.

On January 2, 1986, Tony Britton, the assistant general manager of News Group Newspapers Limited, publishers of the Sun and the News of the World, wrote to Tony Isaacs, the senior machine-room union official, ‘The company has agreed [to the union’s proposals] – and has given assurances that no regular employee need make himself available for voluntary redundancy.’ To which Isaacs replied, ‘It is with pleasure that I can advise you that my Chapel [has] accepted Management’s proposals that embrace the [Wapping] plant.’

Unknown to Dean, Isaacs or any other union official, Murdoch had been secretly moving non-union staff into Wapping for months and was discussing with his senior executives how they could sack the thousands who had been given ‘assurances’ that their jobs were secure. In a letter to News International managing director Bruce Mathews, Geoffrey Richards, the senior solicitor advising Murdoch, proposed precisely how they might ‘dispense with the work-forces’. ‘The cheapest way’, he wrote, ‘would be to dismiss employees while participating in a strike . . . The idea is to catch as many employees in the net as possible and it seems to me this will be done best if the dismissals take place at the weekend . . .’

What he was saying was that, under Thatcher’s new anti-trade union laws, workers who struck during ‘negotiations’ could be sacked instantly and would lose their redundancy entitlements: a huge saving to the company. There was no longer any mention of the London Post, which began to sound more and more mythical, a ploy for the ‘real game’, as Murdoch insiders called the trap being set.

‘We were tricked,’ said Brenda Dean. ‘We had agreements that were at the point of being signed and the management suddenly were holding off signing them. We had even agreed to a third redundancies in some areas.’ In fact, Dean had conceded more than any Fleet Street General-Secretary previously had dared to. Tony Dubbins, of the National Graphical Association, which represented typesetters, had gone even further by agreeing the principle of direct computerised type-setting by journalists at Wapping, although it effectively undermined the very existence of his union.

Project 800

Only signatures were needed. The stalling continued as Murdoch’s men waited for the signal to implement ‘Project 800’, a top-secret plan described by Murdoch at a meeting of his executives in New York as ‘our dash for freedom’. When the unions finally realised they had been tricked and their agreements were worthless, they called a ballot and went on strike. ‘We had given him an olive branch’, said Dubbins, ‘and he’d broken it in two and beat us around the head with it.’

As ‘negotiations’ technically were still in progress, the workforce could be dismissed without compensation. Thus, almost 5,500 people were sacked, many of them lifelong employees. ‘I feel deeply and personally bitter’, said Dean, ‘on behalf of the thousands of our people who stood on the picket line at Wapping for more than a year and have since been forgotten.

The dimension of the unseen human tragedy was shocking. We had people who came with their families, their children; they wanted to take part in a peaceful demonstration. They wanted to say to Murdoch, “You’ve not only done this to me, you’ve done it to my wife and kids.” But the Metropolitan Police clearly had other instructions. They were there to protect the newspapers, to see that Murdoch got the Sun out, and the rest of his publications. We called them “paper boys”, and that was exactly what they were.

‘To achieve this, they acted in a most brutal way – as the subsequent inquiries confirmed. I saw many people deliberately beaten up by the so-called riot police. The journalists who came along were shocked by what they saw. The police went for decent, straightforward trade unionists as if it was a civil war situation. One of our people was killed by one of Murdoch’s lorries, and the lorry didn’t even bother to stop. There were several nervous breakdowns. Marriages broke up. Strong men I knew, and I don’t mean physically strong, but men with leadership, turned bitter. It broke them. People entitled to unemployment benefit didn’t receive it. I’m not only talking just about the relatively well paid, but cleaners, canteen workers, who outnumbered the printers four to one – It was as if the British state had joined forces with Murdoch against us . . .’

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