The “Wapping Cough”

This story is taken from Fleet Street journalist Roy Greenslade’s book “Press Gang: How Newspapers Make Profits From Propaganda.”

It tells the story of Rupert Murdoch’s move to Wapping through the eyes of a journalist who made the move.

Make sure you also take a look at Fortress Wapping written by award-winning journalist John Pilger.

IT started with the mysterious “Wapping cough” and ended when Rupert Murdoch’s moonlight flit revolutionised an industry.

In January 1986 the editor of the Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie, called me into his office. I knew it was serious because he asked me to close the door, which was somewhat unusual, and then spoke almost in a whisper, which was virtually unprecedented.

After asking me to swear not to tell a soul about our conversation, he told me to put every important item from my desk and filing cabinets into two black plastic bags and take them to his waiting chauffeur at the front entrance. “He knows where to take you,” he said, “and you won’t be coming back.”

It was hardly a surprise. I was about to join a select band of executives who had vanished from the Sun’s office months before. Their disappearances had been explained away with a range of cover stories, some almost believable – such as the mooted launch of a London paper – and some hopelessly far-fetched. Who would believe that the feted night editor had really taken early retirement?

It was an open secret among the journalists that our colleagues had succumbed to the “Wapping cough” and were really learning how to operate the computers that were supposed to transform the way we produced newspapers. Not that many of us gave that plan much credence.

Newspaper owners had been talking about introducing what was laughably called “new technology” for years and several of them had even gone so far as to install computers in their offices only for the print unions to prevent them being used. Surely the unions would use their industrial muscle once again to prevent Rupert Murdoch from switching production of his four papers – the Sun, News of the World, Times and Sunday Times – away from the traditional headquarters?

An Embarrassing Farce

On the drive to Wapping I remember thinking I was due to take part in an embarrassing farce. I thought Murdoch would fail because I was imbued with a culture in which the print unions always seemed to come out as winners. It was true that the miners had been defeated two years before and there were new laws circumscribing industrial action, but the printers were invincible, were they not?

All my newspaper life, stretching back to the beginning of my apprenticeship on a local weekly in 1963, I had been overawed by the strength of the print unions. In Fleet Street I discovered that they ran the show. Indeed, throughout the 1970s I had been a militant member of the National Union of Journalists, so I had first-hand experience of wielding union power.

During the winter months of 1985 it was obvious that MacKenzie was convinced that the Big Bang was about to happen, often confiding to us that “the boss [Murdoch] is going to show those bastards”. On occasion he openly taunted compositors: “You lot haven’t got much f**king longer… You’re history.” The printers were baffled – was he just being his usual obnoxious self or did he know something they didn’t? Asked to explain, he would simply hold a finger to his lips and give an exaggerated wink.

The very idea of a wholesale sacking of the mechanical staff was too impossible to imagine. How could a paper be prepared without the linotype operators, compositors and proof readers? How could it be printed without the hundreds of skilled men who manned the presses? Even if it could be produced, how could it be distributed when the rail unions would support their printing brothers?

I soon changed my mind after entering the place that was soon to become known as Fortress Wapping. I stepped first into the clean, airy press hall to see shiny blue machines being tended by men in spotless overalls.

Upstairs, in what was to become the Sun’s rough and ready editorial office for the following couple of years, were lines of new desks. On each one sat a computer terminal and keyboard. A posse of electricians scurried around, tugging at wires snaking through open ducts in the floor. The Wapping vanguard of journalists under the guidance of the giant figure of a night desk executive, David Banks, were working frantically, readying themselves for the moment the unions walked into Murdoch’s trap and he ordered the moonlight flit from Bouverie Street and Gray’s Inn Road to Wapping.

Murdoch had prepared the ground well for his great revolution. First, he had the money, having benefited from the flotation of Reuters, and knew there was a lot more to come when he sold the Bouverie Street building. Second, the Conservative government’s Trade Union Act outlawed secondary picketing. Third, there was the parallel planning of a non-unionised paper by Eddy Shah, a diversion for the unions. Fourth, Murdoch’s managers had organised a distribution system, including the purchase of a fleet of lorries and vans, to avoid the need to use trains. Fifth, and most important of all, he had negotiated a deal with Eric Hammond, leader of the electricians’ union, the EETPU, to provide all the manual staff. Hundreds of electrical workers were then covertly trained to run the presses while many of their relatives were schooled in the composing room tasks that pre-dated the on-screen make-up now in use.

Murdoch opened the trap in the autumn of 1985 when he gave the print unions a three-month ultimatum to agree substantial staff cuts. Their response was a ballot giving them the right to call a strike if Murdoch tried to impose compulsory redundancies. In the following months Murdoch grew so confident that he dared, on January 18, to print a special section of the Sunday Times at Wapping.

At an edgy meeting with all the print unions five days later Murdoch told them that “the horse has bolted”. As he anticipated, the unions issued a strike threat and Murdoch closed his trap by ordering the wholesale move of the journalists on his four papers to Wapping.

The Sun and News of the World staff, with very few exceptions, quickly packed their bags. They were heavily influenced by a history of antagonism with printers who had refused to support them when they took industrial action. Journalists at the Times and Sunday Times, despite similar experiences, agonised longer and many more of them decided not to go, earning the nickname “refuseniks”.

But Murdoch’s calculated gamble paid off. Despite the problems inside, not least the need for sub-editors to learn how to use a computer with hardly any training, and hostility outside due to the rapid formation of picket lines, the papers were published.


In the following weeks and months going to work in Wapping was disturbing. I often glimpsed compositors I had known since 1969, some of whom I counted as friends, screaming behind the police barriers, mouthing my name and shaking their fists.

The resentment and anger of the strikers, whose crafts had been eliminated for ever, often boiled over into violence, especially when joined on Saturday nights by hundreds of workers from other industries. There was bad behaviour on both sides of the conflict, with examples of unacceptable police heavy-handedness matched by mindless violence from pickets.

On one night in February alone, eight policemen were injured and 58 people were arrested as 5,000 demonstrators tried to storm the printing plant.

Inside, we journalists revelled in the joys of doing as we pleased, though there were many frustrations as we struggled to make edition times. I once spotted a figure in a grey sweater stooped over a paste-up board who seemed to be taking ages to stick down a piece of copy. “For f**k’s sake,” I shouted. “Are you going to take all night with that?” He turned slowly and I was about to add another epithet when I realised it was Murdoch. He simply smiled.

Nothing could upset the man who had led a revolution. Some 13 months later, after 1,262 arrests and countless people injured, the unions relented by agreeing to accept redundancy deals.

Every other newspaper proprietor followed Murdoch’s lead, moving away from Fleet Street and dispensing with their unions. Profits flowed in. A new national title, the Independent, was founded. All papers expanded in size, adding supplements and magazines. Colour pictures became the norm. Nowadays, hot metal printing is a faint memory and many journalists nowadays, possibly the majority, know only a post-Wapping world.

However much we older hacks may yearn for the village that was Fleet Street none of us would really wish to turn the clock back to the days when we never knew whether our papers were going to be published. And that’s the measure of Murdoch’s industrial transformation.

One thought on “The “Wapping Cough””

  1. It’s interesting to get the other side of the story here.
    Greenslade seems unable, though, to drop his old newspaper reporting habits for the book.
    He says in the article that there was bad behaviour shown by both sides on the picket line. He then describes the police as “heavy-handed” and the pickets as “mindlessly violent” – in the true tradition of British “unbiased” reporting.

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