Of the many feelings conjured by Wapping: The Workers Story, the most striking is the proud working-class solidarity which is presented as a normal element of the Fleet Street newspaper business in the ’80s, before the unions were hobbled by the double threat of Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch. Filmmaker Christopher Reeves, assisted by editor of the New International Dispute Archive, Ann Field, assembles a wealth of archival footage, newspaper clippings, and interviews to tell how Murdoch sacked 5,500 printworkers in 1986, and how they then took to the streets for over a year, amidst a climate of police brutality and the media distorting their motives. They may have ultimately lost, but the printworkers, many of whom are featured here, have a clear perspective on the methods Murdoch used against them. This clarity is immensely valuable in understanding the unstoppable mogul, who at 89 shows no signs of curbing his appetite for power for power’s sake. As I write, he is preparing to launch a TV news channel in the UK.
In 1986, Murdoch’s global expansion was well underway. After building on his newspaper proprietor father’s legacy in Australia by acquiring a large number of titles and effectively creating the modern tabloid format, in 1968 he entered the UK market, purchasing the News of the World (this would be followed by the Sun in 1969 and the Times and Sunday Times in 1981). He was well-known in Australia but yet to be established in the UK (and American growth was to come). As Terry Smith, who worked in the Sun’s composing room, puts it: “The Australian Labour Party had sent a delegation over at one time and said, ‘You know you’re dealing with a snake, and a not very nice one either.’ But the union said, ‘Look, this bloke is giving our people work, jobs, okay? We’ll watch the situation, but as far as we’re concerned, we want this to work.’”
Granville Williams of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom believes that Murdoch’s desire to replace a unionized workforce with a more pliable one traced to the UK miners’ strike of 1984-5. The Murdoch-controlled press put out hate-filled rhetoric about the miners, including a front-page feature about the president of the miners’ union, Arthur Scargill, bearing the headline “Mine Fuhrer.” The printworkers, who had already shown cross-industry solidarity by donating money to the miners’ fund, refused to print it. “Murdoch really hated the idea that people whose wages he was paying could even challenge his right to own a newspaper,” says Williams.
Shortly afterward, the mogul bought a new plant in the Wapping neighborhood of London, which was so heavily guarded that it became known as “Fortress Wapping.” He furtively brought in a new workforce, offered his existing workforce unacceptable terms of employment, and promptly fired them all when they did not accept. A leaked legal letter confirms that he had been looking into “the cheapest way of dispensing with the present workforce.” This method was indeed cheap, for it meant no redundancy pay and no unfair dismissal claims. 5,500 people were instantly off the payroll after a lifetime of loyal service, their survival be damned. This workforce had learned their trade when newspapers were made with printing presses, necessitating a range of typesetting jobs supported by strong unions in SOGAT (the Society for Graphical and Allied Trades) and NGA (the National Graphical Association). The sacked printworkers were portrayed as luddites, unable to adapt to changing technologies, and their actual grievance over the nature of their dismissals was buried.
This ruthless posturing can be seen today in the climate change denialism rampant across Murdoch’s Australian newspapers, such as the Australian, the Daily Telegraph, and the Herald Sun. After the forest fires that raged across the continent in 2020, these publications instead blamed land management, arson, and even the policies of the Green Party. (Read the whistle-blowing on this disinformation campaign by a brave former employee, Emily Townsend.) The reactionary culture of simplifying reality with no regard for the consequences has long been part of the Murdoch modus operandi, with Fox News in the US as the most consistently stark example. Anything goes, so long as it keeps him at the top of the pile. No scandal has so typified the “ends justifies the means” logic of the Murdoch press more than the News International phone-hacking scandal of 2005, in which it was discovered that journalists working for News of the World and the Sun had hacked the phones of celebrities, royals, and even murdered schoolgirl Millie Dowler.
Yet despite the demise of NOW in 2011 and the Leveson Inquiry which followed, Murdoch himself remains untouched, a shadowy figure floating above all that he enables. This is because, unlike someone like Donald Trump, who craves the spotlight, Murdoch prefers to wheel and deal behind closed doors. His power stems from access to the figures and machinery of state. During the Wapping dispute, he was able to bring about in days court proceedings that would normally take months. In Australia in the ’60s, he convinced mining magnate Lang Hancock to sell him mineral prospects by offering the Western Australian government, which had been blocking the sale, “a headline a day or a bucket of shit every day. What’s it to be?” (The Crikey documented this episode in its dive into the nature of Murdoch’s power.) Over 50 years on, this influence has only intensified. Murdoch and his senior executives met with senior ministers and officials in government over 200 times in 24 months, according to 2018 research by Hacked Off, a campaign against press abuses established in 2011 in response to the phone-hacking revelations, with victim actor Hugh Grant amongst the key personnel.
Murdoch’s controlling interests flow down as well as up. “He only appoints people who are in the sense a facsimile of him,” says Williams, citing as an example The Sun editor from 1981-94 Kelvin MacKenzie, a notorious bully who also hated unions. This view is substantiated by the late Harold Evans, a former editor of the Times, quoted in The Crikey as saying that Murdoch executives: “act like courtiers, working towards what they perceive to be his wishes or might be construed as his wishes … They act this way out of fear, certainly, because executions are so brutal, but the fear also reflects a more rational appreciation of the fact that his ‘wild’ gambles so often turn out to be triumphs lesser mortals could not even imagine.” Perhaps the most striking expression of how Murdoch’s interests pass wordlessly into his employees comes from biographer William Shawcross, who describes how his wishes and views “merely emanated from him, rather like ectoplasm.” Faced with such an intimidating authority, the temptation is simply to stand aside. What is so moving about Wapping is that the printworkers didn’t do that. They pushed back with the story as they knew it to be, and continue to do so to this day in the hope that, by paying their insights forwards, others will take the baton and the truth will eventually win out.
Wapping: The Workers Story is available to stream via Vimeo.