A Rough and Bloody Contest

John Lang and Graham Dodkins, Bad News: The Wapping Dispute

Spokesman Books, 172pp, £15.00, ISBN 9780851247960

reviewed by Richard Sharpe

Bad News is a timely and insightful account of the 1986-87 dispute between the print and clerical unions and Rupert Murdoch’s empire of newspapers. The general facts are known: Murdoch built a plant in Wapping to consolidate the two wings of his newspaper empire in the UK - the Times part and the Sun / News of the World part; he wanted direct input by journalists and a curb on union action; after a rough and bloody contest, aided by the vacillations of key union leaders, he got his way.

Lang and Dodkins were members of the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades (Sogat), the union of managers, clerks, secretaries, librarians, copy typists and messengers. The authors unfold the narrative and intersperse extracts from the many interviews with strikers they spoke to in the aftermath of the strike. The strikers were generally vilified by much of the media at the time: ‘Ordinary people, who a few weeks earlier had been librarians, cashiers, cleaners and printers were, as part of the propaganda exercise waged against the strikers, branded as thugs and were described as if they were part of some sinister underground movement.’ But they were not: they were ordinary working people who had taken part in a democratic process of debate and voting in order to collectively protect their jobs.

What comes over again and again is the impact the real events not only of the strike but also the Metropolitan Police’s response to picketing had on these ordinary people. They could see more clearly than ever what they faced and rose to the occasion with thousands of individual acts of defiance as well as collective organisation. This created some tensions between the full-time leaders of unions and their members as well of members of Sogat outside London. Those outside London were not mobilised by the leadership, nor were the London strikers used to explain what the dispute was about; regional members perceived the London members as pampered. Tensions between London members and regional members were left to fester.

A split between the unions themselves further exacerbated divisions. The National Union of Journalists had pledged not to work at Wapping until the print dispute was settled. Many of its members disliked the print unions because they had disrupted production and frustrated the journalists’ instincts to get the story out to the public. Eventually The Sunday Times journalists, for example, voted 68-60 to move to Wapping and reneged on their pledge of support.

But that was nearly a quarter of a century ago, so why is this book timely? It is not only because Murdoch has now put the whole Wapping site up for sale. The recent hacking scandal has made this book especially relevant: the close association of British politics with the Murdoch empire has its historical roots in this dispute. With the backing of Thatcher’s anti-union laws Murdoch established himself as a real force in Britain; when a politician did not woo the Murdoch empire, as John Major and Neil Kinnock did not, they were given a rough time. Hence Tony Blair’s flight to Australia for a meeting of Murdoch executives in 1995 when he was leader of the opposition; and hence the many meetings between David Cameron, Murdoch and his senior executives in the period leading up to the 2010 General Election.

Then there is the close association between the Murdoch papers and the police. It is quite clear from the Lang and Dodkins narrative that the police were not in the game to preserve public order but to disrupt and defeat the strikers. Their tactics against the ordinary people on strike were an assault on working people defending their jobs. What had been meted out to the striking miners would be meted out to the striking newspaper workers. The result in the case of the miners was the deliberate strangulation of the coal industry; the defeat of the striking newspaper workers meant the enthronement of an unelected and unaccountable power wielded by Murdoch.

In a sense, therefore, we all became victims of the defeat of the strikers in 1987, not just the 5,500 who lost their jobs, as our democratic representatives became corrupted by their desire to win the support and approval of the Murdoch media empire. The response of senior politicians to the recent phone-hacking scandal reminds me of the actions of the French Police officer played by Claude Raines in the film Casablanca. He closes Rick’s Café Americain because, he says, he has discovered illegal gambling on the premises - only to be slipped his winnings by one of Rick’s waiters.
Richard Sharpe is a senior lecturer with the Department of Journalism at the University of East London and a senior associate of the London East Research Institute.