'I still sympathise with bloke who cut my ear'

IT NOW SEEMS embarrassingly obvious but, I must promise my younger
colleagues, the rights and wrongs of what was simply known as “Wapping”
did not seem so clear-cut 20 years ago. In retrospect, it is
self-evident the print unions were preventing newspapers from
flourishing. Their closed shops, fraudulent employment practices,
propensity to down tools on a whim and Luddite refusal to accept
technological innovation were threatening all our futures. At the time,
however, as I daily walked in to work from Tower Hill tube past a
picket line manned by former colleagues and into the razor-wired
fortress that was The Times’s unglamorous new home, my main emotion was
neither fear nor excitement but guilt.

Curiously I felt guilty
even when, on one of these trudges, a blurred figure whom I vaguely
recognised from the post room in Gray’s Inn Road rushed at me from
behind a bush, knocked me to the ground and made a small cut to my left
ear with a razor blade. I arrived at my desk on the Times Diary
bleeding, slightly or so I thought, on to my shirt and worrying mostly
where that day’s lead story was going to come from (the diary’s Labour
sources had largely dried up, not surprisingly given Neil Kinnock’s
command to his party not to talk to Murdoch “scabs”).

Fortunately
for me, the diary at that time was positioned just outside the office
of the editor, Charles Wilson. Wilson is the only man I have ever
worked for in a state of almost permanent fear, but he was horrified by
the assault on one of his most junior staff members and insisted that I
was accompanied to the nearest casualty department and that my ear be
sewn back together. A few months later, I unexpectedly received a
cheque for £800 from News International, accompanied by a letter saying
that although, officially, I wasn’t entitled to compensation since the
attack had happened off the premises, here was an ex-gratia payment
anyway. I used the money to replace the central heating boiler in my
new, first flat. The bosses obviously felt badly about what had
happened. As did most of us. About all of it.

Nowadays I wonder
why. The demon printers of Fleet Street were hardly considered even
then beloved parts of our national heritage. Rather, they were a surly,
self-selecting gang who permitted only limited contact with
journalists, all of whom, incidentally, were union members too. Most
could not typeset for toffee and frequently rendered a whole day’s
efforts redundant by deciding not to print tomorrow’s paper at all. Yet
to sack men for striking seemed to me the height of bad management and
cruelty. Our secretary on the diary, who had cried when she had heard
my mother had died a few weeks before we were migrated to Tower
Hamlets, was married to a compositor on The Sun. It was as if I had
connived in slashing her family’s income by twothirds.

In a way I
had. Not all Times journalists went to Wapping. The industrial
correspondents, second in newsroom status only to the lobby staff in
those days, could not, for no trade unionist would talk to them. But
others, the refuseniks, declined solely out of principle. John Sweeney,
for whom I had got shifts on the diary, stayed out, despite having just
married.

I believe he would not have gone in even if, like me, he
had just got a staff job. A proper job in Fleet Street had been my goal
ever since I started work on the Sheffield Star five years earlier. I
did not lie to myself. I was putting my career ahead of my conscience.
This taught me something about myself, but nothing I wanted to know.
The £2,000 salary increase we were given to go into Wapping and embrace
the new technology looked like a bribe, not only to those on the picket
line, but to me. I accepted it, rationalising that at least I was not a
“super-scab”, someone who had come in on the Sunday to produce Monday’s
paper before our chapel threw in the towel, or a “super-super-scab”,
one of the secret cadre who had been working in the new plant for
weeks, suffering from what was known as “Wapping Flu”.

I still
can’t quite bring myself to think of these pioneers as heroes, but in a
sense they were. They had certainly more to be said for them than those
colleagues who came to Wapping, took the money, and then scrambled for
the high ground a few months later by defecting to the gestating
Independent. There would have been no Indy to defect to, had not Rupert
Murdoch so dramatically reduced the costs of producing a paper.

Still,
it was a bad year and a half. For months I was awoken in the night by
silent phone calls from heavy-breathing union members. My own union for
a period threatened to fine us. How little, it turned out, did it
represent our interests! In the decades that followed things got better
and better for print journalists, quite a feat given that the newspaper
market spent those years declining. Our salaries, although no longer
negotiated by unions, are higher.

(Wapping was the catalyst for
the biggest salary-hike since Jimmy Goldsmith lured star writers to his
news magazine Now!) More of us are employed. Our papers are bigger so
we get more stuff in. (I once got out from the cuttings library the
Telegraph for the day after Nixon resigned; it ran to fewer than 20
pages).

They are more colourful, better printed, more accurately
spelled. There are, without a doubt, more of them than there would have
been had the old, suicidal press economy survived. They also come out
every day. And the printers whom I thought I had betrayed? I guess they
found other work in the end. I hope so, for I still find myself
sympathising with my razor-armed assailant, a young man who must have
known his comfortable career in newspapers was ending, just as mine was
taking off.

Andrew Billen left The Times in 1989 and returned as a feature writer in 2002

Murdoch on…
WAPPING

What
really happened was, through the 1970s, I would go across the street
from Bouverie Street to the Newspaper Publishers Association. All the
heads of the companies would get together. They would all agree that
some demand or other was absolutely impossible and had to be resisted,
and they’d all agree that all the other publishers would close down in
support of whoever was the target. We agreed this again and again and
again. But nobody ever stuck to the agreement. Pretty often the target
gave way before we had a chance. Other times other publishers would
give in, so there was never any sort of united front. The publishers of
those days got exactly what they deserved from the unions. So I gave up
attending or trying to be part of it.

I looked around, and I remembered the strike the Mirror had a few days before. They were off the streets for 10 days.

And
they had come back and hadn’t lost any circulation at all. Not one
copy. So I figured if we we’re big and have strong enough titles, we
could face them and do a showdown.

Which was when I started planning for Wapping.

Rupert Murdoch interviewed by Press Gazette, Nov 2005

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