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Wapping: what can we learn from it?

While reading yesterday’s article Rupert Murdoch and the Liberal Party I was struck by the following:

Rupert Murdoch has shown a total disdain for governments and government regulation. They are an impediment to him shaping the world in the way he wants it to be. He believes in a conservative, business dominated world. You only have to go back to the days of Margaret Thatcher who helped Murdoch break the unions in the Wapping dispute to see what he wants. Murdoch wants to see another Thatcher run Australia.

I believe this was spot-on, as you will see.

Not many people would know about the Wapping dispute and how the Thatcher Government lent a helping hand to ensure that Murdoch got his way. The Wapping dispute started on 24 January 1986 when some 6,000 newspaper workers went on strike after protracted negotiation with their employer, News International (chaired by Murdoch). News International had built and clandestinely equipped a new printing plant for all its titles in the London district of Wapping, and when the print unions announced a strike it activated this new plant with the assistance of rogue union members.

The Wapping dispute was a story of betrayal, of connivance, and a bitter blow for workers.

The war broke out when nearly 6,000 newspaper workers went on strike after the collapse of talks with Murdoch’s News International. Murdoch had wanted to move his British newspapers from their traditional home in Fleet Street to a new purpose-built printery in London’s East End. When the workers refused to move Murdoch issued dismissal notices against all. What happened was a lockout that sparked a bitter and doomed year long strike.

And the Thatcher Government bent over backwards to ensure nothing would stand in the way of the media baron’s ambitions.

The story hit the British and later world’s press like a bomb going off. It was the story of the day if one were to believe the stories, Murdoch was as shocked as everyone else. The dispute was the last thing he expected or wanted (apparently). The back story was, however, very different. The 24th of January may well have been the day open hostilities broke out, but the war had been a long time in the planning. Neither the battle or the war were the spontaneous eruption that the British Murdoch press portrayed it to be; Rupert Murdoch was not the surprised and innocent person he claimed to be at the time. Even until very recently Murdoch maintained his innocence.

A clear understanding of what happened before and at Wapping are essential if one is to understand how the Murdoch empire grew and its relationships with subsequent British and to a lesser extent American and Australian governments.

Wapping was about profits and power and how both could be exploited to their fullest to the benefit of the Murdoch, his shareholders and successive British Governments. Before Wapping, Murdoch was making a reasonable return on investments. After Wapping, profits soared.

Murdoch had bought the Wapping site in 1978 and by the time of the strike it was truly a fortress ringed by steel fences monitored by close circuit television cameras. The razor wire came later, as did the mounted riot police and dogs.

At least one union played right into Murdoch’s hands, secretly recruiting scab labour to work at Wapping and it was this labour that allowed Murdoch to produce his papers throughout the year long strike.

Central to Murdoch’s plans was his relationship with the then Thatcher Government. Just how close this relationship was had recently become clear. Speaking shortly after Mrs Thatcher’s death Rupert Murdoch said that she was an “inspired leader” and that her “Government had made it possible for News International to survive a year of industrial action (at) Wapping.”

Rupert Murdoch never forgot his debt of gratitude to Mrs Thatcher and her Government as hundreds of headlines from The Sunday Times, Times, Sun and News of the World clearly attest.

The 2012 Leveson Inquiry into the News of the World scandal heard evidence from Murdoch’s once trusted Australian ally and former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil that Murdoch had made it clear to him that almost a year before the strike began, he (Murdoch) “had gone to Mrs Thatcher to square it with [her]”. Neil had been Murdoch’s go-between in 1985 between the unions and News Limited and was central to what happened at Wapping. O’Neil has also said “that enough police would be made available to allow him to get his papers past the massed pickets at Wapping once the dispute was underway.”

The BBC, in an interview with Mr O’Neil subsequently reported that the relationship between Mrs Thatcher and his boss was “seminal”. As Neil said in in his Leveson evidence, “Thatcher’s battles were our battles”. Clearly the relationships Rupert Murdoch developed at the time of the War at Wapping were enhanced as time went by and were pivotal to Murdoch’s political power plays in the years then ahead. These relationships were also pivotal to Murdoch’s power over every British government and many leading politicians for the next two decades. This was never more so than his personal and professional relationship with Tony Blair’s New Labour movement. Blair had seen at first hand Murdoch’s merciless attacks on Labour leader Neil Kinnock throughout the late 1980’s and 90’s. The Sun headline on the day of the 1992 general election said it all “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.”

However, Rupert Murdoch ever the political chameleon was always willing to swap sides just so long as his power increased and News Limited profits continued to flow as happened when this famous headline appeared in 1997 Murdoch’s tabloid The Sun, “The Sun Backs Blair”.

It is also possible that if Wapping had never occurred the history of every subsequent British election and Government may have been very different, at the very least the headlines in the News Limited British newspapers most certainly would have been different.

As a friend commented to me: “Wapping warped the Murdoch media”.

Returning to the article Rupert Murdoch and the Liberal Party, I find this comment of concern:

Murdoch wants to see another Thatcher run Australia. In his mind, someone who supports business 100% is the only viable leader. Does he see Tony Abbott as another Margaret Thatcher?

This is what makes that statement frightening …

How the media business was transformed by her time in office:

  • Baroness Thatcher helped Rupert Murdoch break the power of the print unions at Wapping, paving the way for new titles such as the Independent and bigger, multi-section newspapers.
  • She broke the TV duopoly of ITV and the BBC – through the launch of Channel 4, independent producers and the breakfast station TV-am.
  • She privatised the TV transmitter networks and allowed ITV licences to be awarded to the highest bidder.
  • She unleashed the UK’s advertising sector, assisted by Saatchi & Saatchi – which helped her into Downing Street with its Labour Isn’t Working poster – and grew to become the world’s largest advertising group. The ad business also reaped a multi-million-pound bonanza from the privatisation campaigns for British Telecom, British Gas and the TSB.
  • And she crossed swords many times with the BBC, though it survived her attempts to break it up and scrap the licence fee.

It’s easy to see why Murdoch might just favour a Thatcher-lite.


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  1. Brigid O'Carroll Walsh

    I do remember this – probably because I had a friend who was a lecturer in journalism at a tertiary institution at the time and it was a topic of concern and conversation. It was said that Rupert had computers stashed away which would cost jobs. Now journalism has been taken over by IT which has cost jobs and now we are down to once distinguished newspapers publishing boiler articles from news services rather than employing journalists to write and comment specifically for a newspaper’s own readership.

  2. Kaye Lee

    “In 1975, in protest at Murdoch’s interference in the 1975 election campaign, reporters at the Australian went on strike in protest and they reportedly wrote to the boss calling the newspaper “a propaganda sheet” and saying it had become, ‘a laughing stock’. An article published by the Oxford University Press Australia and New Zealand, “The Murdoch papers and the 1975 ‘dismissal’ election” goes on to refer to a 1995 article by Peter Bowers quoting former diplomat, John Menadue saying something to the effect that Murdoch was dangerous in 1975 and more so later, adding that “America and Britain may be able to accommodate him but our country is too small to live comfortably with the interventionist side of Rupert Murdoch’s.”

    The diplomat may have been off the mark in presuming that America and Britain could accommodate Murdoch without significant cost but his concerns about the effects of not only an “interventionist” media proprietor, but an increasingly dominant one in Australia, were spot on.

    The weekend of July 16-17 2011 was a call to arms to stop scrutiny of News Ltd in Australia and to attack those who did not share the subservience of its employees to the needs of the Corporation. By this time nobody was laughing. The four part blog series “Beware of Brown” has already detailed the editorials from the Courier Mail and The Australian that weekend, as well as the contributions of the Andrew Bolt sledge hammer and the extraordinary article by Andrew McIntyre which form a formidable core of typical News Corporation defence which is built on attack, personal vilification, establishing the narrative, claiming victimhood and much hyperbole.

    This was a “so much not 1975” edition of the Australian!

    Mr Murdoch may be in the middle of a crisis in Britain, but he can sit back in the knowledge that his Australian operations are in harmony with his agenda. He can take comfort from the fact that those pesky journalists from 1975 had been tamed. In fact, more “journalists” work for him than anyone else in the English speaking world and yet they can still claim to be victims enabling his corporation to intervene, to manipulate, and to improve the bottom line in Australia, Britain and particularly in the United States of America.

    It’s a great little racket!”

  3. Fed up

    An aside. Mrs. That, as a trained scientist did believe that carbon emissions cause the climate to change., Believed that action had to be taken by governments. One wonders why this question has become a divide between the left and right, Maybe that is not so, that there are doubters on all sides.

  4. Fed up

    Yes, we did need reminding that there is hatred of unions from the far right and the likes of Murdoch. Howard’s early years was marked by similar endeavors, starting with the attack on the water front, which was more about destroying unions, than improving productivity.

    I suspect, if Abbot does achieve power, carrying on the fight will be among one of his first actions.

  5. Gilly

    Australia has its own Wapping. Howard and Patricks on the waterfront.

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