THE PICKET LINE offered various temperatures.
They ranged from
freezing January mornings of inactivity to running red-hot from
truncheons on a Saturday night. There was yelling and spitting aimed at
the Murdoch side but there was also warm Cockney humour and stalls
along the roadside selling memorabilia (much of it left from the
miners’ strike a year earlier) and tea and cake from the “Costa del
Wapping” cafe, a converted ambulance.
The ritualised aggro of a Saturday night was frequently softened by humour across “enemy lines”.
recall the story of one single copy of our strike paper, the Wapping
Post, signed by both the Metropolitan Police commander and the picket
leader Bill Hicks, being auctioned off for £25 to help strike funds.
Like many of the 100 or so “refusenik”
journalists caught up in
the battle between London print unions and NewsCorp, I shrank from the
abusive and physical confrontations. It was difficult to see how we
could win – if winning meant getting jobs back – unless Murdoch failed
to get his papers out of the Wapping plant. Night after night the big
white TNT trucks did just that.
The Dunkirk spirit of the sacked
printers, compositors, secretaries, copytakers, clerks and van drivers
inspired a radicalism well beyond that of their trade union leaders and
eventually beyond that of the formidable pro-Soviet “tankies” who
infiltrated their lines. The sacked workers simply wouldn’t admit
defeat. This was one of the reasons the dispute rumbled on until the
The tankies were the British rump of the split
in the western communist parties between the Stalinist hardliners and
the reformist “Euro-communists”. They were important because they had,
by dint of hard work and heavy personality, established an
organisational presence in the Fleet Street print branches. Among their
activities they helped publish to union members the London Sogat Post,
a grey, solemn organ dedicated to the re-election of the officials who
ran it. Early in the Wapping dispute the NUJ offered them the help of
refusenik journalists. I volunteered and proposed a new paper, a hybrid
of The Sun and Private Eye. The Wapping Post launched on 10 May and
went on to achieve fortnightly sales in tens of thousands. It was
staffed by Fleet Street professionals from The Sun, News of the World,
The Sunday Times and The Times, with skills ranging from editorial to
When the London Sogat boss saw a preview front page
of the first issue, with its Sun-style typography and screaming
headline, “Murdoch Mafia Link”, he blanched. He was worried about
libel. Discussion followed between editor (me) and proprietor (Sogat).
headline was changed to “Wapping Mafia Link”, and duly printed on
Morning Star presses, complete with a front-page cross-reference to our
first Page Three girl – headlined “a real stunner”, a female riot cop
pictured on the picket line. The paper also sported a “Page Five Shy
Guy” – a riot policeman whose ID had been removed from the epaulettes
of his uniform – and recipes for Auntie Flo’s funeral cake, a delicacy
from the Costa del Wapping cafe.
In another issue we put Rupert
Murdoch on the psychiatrist’s couch and diagnosed anal retention,
echoing an earlier Sun piece on loony leftie Tony Benn, who of course
turned out to be a wonderful supporter of our cause and thought the
miners might have won if they had had something like the Wapping Post.
paper was distributed nationally through a national newspaper’s
distribution system, without the knowledge of its managers. We tried to
achieve what the picket line couldn’t: we yelled, laughed and cajoled
in headlines and pictures to try to get the workers inside out (we
rarely succeeded) and, perhaps more importantly, to try to protect the
sanity and reinforce the spirit of the pickets.
Apart from the
Thatcher/Murdoch axis, we had to fight against the printers’ own
neanderthal reputation. The “inkies” were a propaganda gift to Kelvin
MacKenzie. The Sun ran a reader contest offering the fabulous prize of
a printer’s salary: £40,000. Various stories did the rounds – of
compositors driving Rollers, of whisky and champagne bottles thrown at
the police. The truth was that most people on the picket line earned
less than £10,000 and had been summarily dismissed.
was that the printers had tried to negotiate with Murdoch – thousands
of new technology redundancies had been agreed only months earlier at
the Mirror Group.
But the printers and the comps were the world’s
most politically incorrect breed. Where were the black machine-minders?
Where were the women comps? Only weeks before the Wapping
confrontation, some NGA members tried to black the work of a Sunday
Times journalist because he had revealed his homosexuality on TV. A few
comps thought they might catch Aids from him. The cultural divide
spread onto the production floor of the Wapping Post. One night I stood
arguing with the Sogat tankies over their refusal to print the Wapping
Post with a headline carrying the word ‘Fuck’. They claimed it would
offend working-class sensibilities.
We compromised on ‘Fâ€¦’
the end we were all easy victims of the Who Dares Wins yomp by Murdoch
and his senior commanders. At Wapping and elsewhere newspaper
proprietors and their managers were “liberated” from the NGA, Sogat and
the NUJ. New newspapers were indeed launched in the late eighties into
the post- Wapping freedom of the digital age, only to discover that the
goalposts had been moved and that failure beckoned, not on the
production floor through labour costs but in the teeming marketplace
Today News Corp prospers, the victims long forgotten –
the sacked workers lost their jobs; some lost their homes and
marriages; a sad few committed suicide. History swallowed up the
It all seems a long time ago that hundreds of men were
paid handsomely on a Saturday night to bundle up the News of the World;
that Howden was a quiet Yorkshire village untouched by PA rather than
the backbone of all our sport and TV pages; that young reporters and
subs from the secondary mods and grammar schools headed for Fleet
Street in search of a middle-class wage… but, who knows, maybe
somewhere out there in blogland lurks the spirit of the picket line
waiting to wreak digital revenge on Rupert.
After Wapping Keith
Sutton became editor of the short-lived News on Sunday, launched as a
left of centre alternative to the national tabloids. He retired last
month as editor of The Cumberland News and the News & Star,
Carlisle and is now consultant editor of Cumbria Business Gazette and
an Industrial Fellow on the Journalism Leaders Programme at the
University of Central Lancashire