On the battle bus

THE LUXURY
commuter coach – TV with videos, safety belt on each recliner seat,
first aid kits fore, aft and amidships – is preparing to depart into
the wintry night and I have settled down with two dozen others for the
journey.

I am lying face-down in the aisle, hands clasped over my
head, nose pushed into the plush carpet and with the driver’s barked
instructions ringing in my ears.

“Heads down, everyone! And stay down, whatever happens!” And then, he adds lamely: “Don’t worry, we should be okay…”

SHOULD
be okay? Did I mention the first aid kits, one to every three or four
passengers? Or the iron bedsteads, bolted and welded over the windows?

Or the fact that, faced with my commute from office to station, I am bloody terrified?

This,
after all, is no normal commuter coach: this is the Wapping Battle Bus,
bound for another bout of bovver with the savage inkies, those
thousands of pickets at the main gate of Rupert Murdoch’s besieged East
London headquarters who are even now raining down upon our barricaded
bus bottles, bricks and – most hurtful of all – epithets cursing us for
our ‘betrayal’ of their craft.

Five hundred years after the printer’s craft was developed by Gutenberg and delivered to these shores by Caxton, the game is up.

A
week or two earlier and old Will Caxton might have rolled up at Holborn
or Bouverie Street and recognised the process as very similar to the
one he introduced.

Armed with his union card he might have signed
on for a double shift as M. Mouse or D. Duck and – with a couple of
days of retraining to bring him up to speed with the Great Leap Forward
from monotype to linotype – he would have happily settled into the
three-days-on, four-days-off routine of the modern British national
newspaper printer.

But not on that wintry night in 1986.

By
that time, computers had replaced compositors; words like ‘the stone,
galleys, chases, lock-up, wets, corrections and copy-holders’ had
disappeared, like flat-beds, into history.

After 25 January, 1986, Caxton would have looked on the process as witchcraft. Or wizardry.

After
all, the man who revolutionised the industry – Rupert Murdoch – WAS a
wizard. And it wasn’t just greedy printers whom he bewitched and
deceived.

Six months earlier I had been plucked from
up-and-coming obscurity as night editor of The Sun and appointed deputy
editor of the proposed London Post by that evening paper’s launch
editor, Charlie Wilson. Dispatched to the US with Times production
editor Tony Norbury, I spent months at the Chicago Sun-Times and Boston
Post, then in New York and at the headquarters of the Atex Corporation,
learning everything there was to learn about how journalists produced
newspapers using direct-input computers.

Back in London, I was
introduced to the truth of the project: NewsCorp MD Bruce Matthews gave
me a splendid lunch after which he drove me – via his bookmaker – to a
heavily guarded, but otherwise deserted Wapping plant wherein lay floor
upon floor of gleaming computers, looking like something out of Star
Trek.

During the following months I gradually built up a team of
journalists – ‘The Dirty Dozen’, we were later called – who were
trained in the black arts of computer-aided newspaper production under
pain-ofdismissal secrecy.

Some secret! Back in Bouverie Street –
from which offices, execs like Patsy Chapman and Graham Courtenay of
The Sun and John Smythe and Nobby Clark of the NoW were requisitioned –
gossipy colleagues joked that the Disappeared Ones had “gone down with
the Wapping Cough”!

But the print unions, who must have been
privy to the same round of rumours of the battle to come, apparently
believed that their traditional might would overwhelm Rupert’s
best-laid plans.

Tense weeks during the Christmas and New Year
periods followed. Murdoch, clad usually in jogging suit and trainers so
that he could trot through the winding corridors of his battle
headquarters, would daily ask the same question: “Are we ready if we
have to go tomorrow?”

Always I replied: “Ready when you are, boss.” It was a lie, of course, but what did I want to be?

Chopped liver? Came the Day of Judgment we were ready – but only by a whisker.

I
remember the arrival of Sun features editor Wendy Henry, like a mother
hen leading her features girls in, each of them carrying their
Remington or Olympia typewriters.

“They won’t need those old things, Wendy,” I told her. “It’s computers from now on.”

“Nonsense!” roared the Great Wen, “my girls will always need their typewriters, doll!”

By
the end of Day One, the Remingtons were all in use – as doorstops! The
air conditioning had failed and the temperature crucially rose to a
point which threatened the modern equipment.

During that first
Saturday hundreds of journalists walked in, wide-eyed as I had first
been. They were taken straight to a retraining floor for a basic crash
course in logging on, opening a document, saving and filing to the
Features, News or Sports desk ‘baskets’ – then released to augment the
rapidly tiring Dirty Dozen and resume the business of putting out
newspapers.

Almost all were eager to get to their desks as soon as possible. Training rarely took more than a day, two at most.

But one eminent Times journalist cheerfully arrived in the training room with a packed lunch on his fifth day.

“Having trouble?” I asked sympathetically as he repeated his practice lessons on the keyboard.

“Not really,” he replied. “It’s coming along quite nicely, thanks.”

“Then why,” I asked “do you not feel able to rejoin your newsdesk colleagues on The Times?”

“Well,” he replied, gravely, “there is one important thing I haven’t worked out yet.”

“What’s that?” I asked, eager to help him over his final high-tech hurdle.

“Well,”
he confessed, minutely examining his keyboard and terminal from all
angles, “I still haven’t worked out where to put the paper in!”

davidbanks@pressgazette.co.uk

 

Wapping
WHO’S WHO

Harry
Conroy, NUJ general secretary John Cowley, joint general manager of
News Group Newspapers Ltd Brenda Dean, general secretary of the Society
of Graphical and Allied Trades (Sogat ’82)

Tony Dubbins, general secretary of the National Graphical Association (NGA)

Bill
Gillespie, managing director of Times Newspapers Ltd Eric Hammond,
general secretary, Electrical Electronic Telecommunications and
Plumbing Union (EETPU)

Bert Hardy, chief executive, News
International who first suggested the move to Wapping, but was
subsequently sacked by Rupert Murdoch Tony Isaacs, Imperial father of
the Sogat News of the World machine chapel John Keating, technical
director for News America Inc.

Kelvin MacKenzie, editor, The Sun

Bruce Matthews, News International’s managing director

Bill Miles, general officer, Sogat

Rupert Murdoch, proprietor and chairman, News International

Greg Neale, The Times’ NUJ father of chapel

Tony Norbury, production editor, The Times and London Post

Bob O’Hagan, security consultant, News International

Bill O’Neill, labour relations negotiator, News International

Peter Roberts, managing editor, The Sunday Times

Tom Rice, national secretary, EETPU Mike Smith, national organiser, NUJ

Charles Wilson, editor, The Times, who. took on role of editorial
director of the London Post as a front for the move to Wapping.
Wilson’s lieutenants were: Mike Hoy, Richard Williams, David Banks,
assistant editor, The Sun, who oversaw training at Wapping; John Bryand
(and later) Tim Austin, The Times’ sub-editor

Roy Wilson, father of Sogat Sunday Times machineroom chapel

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