Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

Murdoch, and the road to Wapping

In A.Graham, Reviews on December 14, 2011 at 4:31 pm

“Bad News: The Wapping Dispute”. by John Lang and Graham Dodkins. Published by Spokesman Books, £15.

This is a timely book. In the light of recent revelations it’s fitting that we should know something about how Rupert Murdoch built his media empire in Britain, culminating in the bitter dispute at his Wapping plant.

In January 1986, some 5,500 workers at the Sun, News of the World, the Times and Sunday Times were sacked. The bitter dispute that followed lasted over a year.

Those who were sacked were all members of the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades (SOGAT). Not all of them were printers – those who were fired on Murdoch’s orders included secretaries, librarians, copy typists and messengers. Indeed, the two authors of this book had been librarians at the Times and Sunday Times. They went on to become active participants in the strike. And they have been able to give us a blow by blow account of the long drawn-out dispute, and how it finally ended in bitter defeat for those who had been effectively locked out.

It was to leave deep scars – and there were many of us who supported the sacked workers, either actively or at least in spirit, who vowed never again to buy a Murdoch newspaper.

MURDOCH MOVES IN:

Rupert Murdoch inherited his first newspaper from his father, back in Australia. He swiftly built on this, launching the country’s first national newspaper and acquiring a television station. But he had ambitions elsewhere – and in 1968 he managed to acquire a stake in the News of the World, then owned by the Carr family. Within a few weeks, by a process of chicanery, he had become a majority shareholder and chairman of the board.

By November 1969 he had added the Sun to his growing tally of trophies. The Sun was the successor to the Daily Herald, which had been bought by the Mirror group in 1961 and re-branded with a new title in 1964. His acquisition of The Times and Sunday Times followed in 1981.

MOVING TO WAPPING:

Supporters of Murdoch and his tactics (who included Margaret Thatcher) claim that events at Wapping were necessary, to force a new technology on to a stubborn, recalcitrant trade union opposition who were no better than Luddites. This book, however, tells a very different story.

True, Murdoch wanted to instal new printing techniques that could be operated by a de-skilled workforce. Other newspapers were already in negotiation with the unions over the introduction of the new technology. But Murdoch’s main aim was to smash the unions, break union agreements and carry out mass redundancies. What better way to do it than by provoking a strike?

At first SOGAT (the major union involved) was prepared to negotiate, even though Murdoch had presented a list of demands that must have stuck in the throat of trade unions. These included the withdrawal of recognition of the unions and the introduction of complete flexibility of working. And the company would have exclusive rights to manage as it saw fit.

Meanwhile, a scab labour force (recruited by the Electricians’ Union) was being secretly trained to take over the print workers’ jobs.

On January 21, 1986, a ballot of SOGAT members gave overwhelming support to a call for strike action. All those involved were promptly sacked by Murdoch. The strike was on, and it was to last for over a year.

Of course, Murdoch had his allies. He was supported by Thatcher, and was now able to make use of the now-politicised Metropolitan Police. And the role played by the Electricians union, led by Eric Hammond, was roundly condemned within the trade union movement.

POWER OF THE STATE:

In an introduction to the book, Tony Benn writes: “The Thatcher Government took up the case for Murdoch and huge demonstrations were held at Wapping in which the full power of the state was mobilised against the printers with the Metropolitan Police being called in to destroy these demonstrations.”

Coming so soon after the bitter miners’ strike, it was a chilling reminder of how far the Thatcherites were prepared to go, to destroy union militancy. A review of this sort, of course, can’t really do justice to the detailed account (including eye-witness accounts) given in this book – I recommend that those who who want to be reminded of what went on in Wapping – and why – should read it for themselves. And draw their own conclusions.

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