No regrets on worst of times

TWENTY YEARS ON, thoughts of the Wapping Dispute still occasionally cross my mind.

It
was the worst of times, undoubtedly. But looking back – and there’s
been a lot of reflection – I don’t think I would have acted very
differently, in terms of the decision I took not to go to Wapping.

I’d
only been father of The Times’ NUJ chapel for a couple of years when
the dispute began. We all knew that our management wanted to introduce
new technology for journalists – with the potential that journalists,
not printers, could eventually set type – but expected that this would
only be introduced by lengthy negotiation. Commentators often forget
that by 1986 the paper had already converted from hot metal to
photocomposition, so I didn’t see the print unions at The Times as
being set against any change.

But having had relatives who had
been skilled printers, I knew that new technology offered little for
many of them. We all became increasingly pessimistic when, in the talks
over printing at Wapping and the launch of a putative new London Post,
News International insisted on contracts that would effectively shackle
the print and clerical unions, and the unions responded with a claim
for jobs for life.

A few weeks before the dispute began, we had
voted that in the event of a confrontation between management and print
unions, Times journalists would simply work on at our Gray’s Inn Road
offices.

It was a traditional response to what would be anything
but a traditional dispute. When the strike began, and as the print and
clerical unions were receiving dismissal notices, we were soon being
told to be prepared to move to Wapping that weekend, and work with new
technology – with a pay rise, and free health insurance – or be
considered as having dismissed ourselves.

The chapel seemed to be
in almost permanent session over that weekend. The official NUJ line
was to stick to our previous decision, and the union itself was under
TUC orders not to negotiate separately with News International. As a
form of solidarity it made sense, but effectively it meant that
journalists could exercise no influence through negotiation, especially
after The Sun and News of the World chapels had quickly agreed to the
move.

When the final vote was taken, and a majority was – albeit
reluctantly – in favour of working at Wapping, there were colleagues,
experienced journalists, in tears. I made my decision pretty quickly,
while accepting the decision of those who would go to Wapping, good
friends among them.

Nearly all the journalists – whichever way
they voted – resented the ultimatum. And while some print union
practices were undoubtedly restrictive, I thought the ordinary men and
women we worked alongside deserved better treatment.

That didn’t
make the decision any easier, or the mortgage any smaller, of course.
Ask any of those who became known as “refuseniks” – whether they never
went to Wapping, or walked out subsequently – and they’ll tell you that
the months that followed saw periods of gloom and uncertainty. As it
did for many inside Wapping, as our former colleagues regularly told us.

For
many of the print workers, Wapping was clearly ‘the end of the Street’,
as Linda Melvern’s book on the dispute put it; many wouldn’t work again
in an industry where new technology would make older craft skills
redundant. And even though the NUJ and other Fleet Street colleagues
gave the “refuseniks” much appreciated support, it was difficult not to
miss jobs on papers that had seemed the pinnacle of one’s career, and
the cameraderie with former colleagues.

As a close observer and
historian of the media, I’ve often been asked to lecture on Wapping,
and its impact on newspapers, and it seems to me that it’s impossible
to view it outside a wider context; the political, social and economic
climate that surrounded the 1980s, just as much as any change in
technology. In the short-to-medium term, newspaper economics improved.
But it’s depressing to note that while the period was greeted by some
as heralding a new dawn for national newspapers, in which numberless
new titles would be launched, the reality has been more modest.

We’ve
still got The Independent, whose launch received an enormous boost from
the Wapping dispute, both in terms of disaffected journalists from The
Times and The Sunday Times – including a number of refuseniks – who
joined it, and a ready audience, and subsequently The Independent on
Sunday.

But ventures such as the London Daily News, the Sunday
Correspondent and the News on Sunday proved all too brief, while Eddy
Shah’s Today similarly failed to last the course. And while it’s easier
now for younger journalists to start on national papers, without
serving provincial apprenticeships, surveys suggest that salaries, once
coat-tailing deals won by printers, have declined in relative terms:
the NUJ, strained by the dispute, has still to regain all its former
influence.

Any historian of the press would conclude that, before
Wapping, Fleet Street had been an insular, village society, colluding
against outsiders, and surviving through increasingly unreal economics.

While
some of those dynamics remain, it is tempting to suggest that even if
Rupert Murdoch had lost the dispute, the end of the old Street was not
far off. As it was, it was an undoubted revolution.

Greg Neale
freelanced for various national newspapers, including The Guardian and
The Observer before joining The Daily Telegraph in 1987, to help launch
that paper’s Weekend section, as assistant, then deputy editor. He was
environment correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph, then – via a
postgraduate course at Oxford – editor of BBC History magazine, winning
two BSME Editor of the Year awards. He is now the magazine’s
editor-at-large, and resident historian for BBC Television’s Newsnight

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