Why Wapping?

Rex Winsbury

There was once a famous proprietor of the Times newspaper who, wishing to introduce new technology into his production plant but fearing the hostility of his print workers, resorted to subterfuge. He installed his new equipment secretly in a separate building, got it working without the use of traditional print staff, all the while maintaining normal production at his old works. When the new plant was ready and actually printing the Times, he presented it as a fait accompli to his workers.

What he actually said was: ‘Gentlemen, the Times is printed – by steam.’ The year was 1814; the proprietor was John Walter II; the new technology was the Koenig steam-driven press capable of over a thousand impressions an hour, against the 250 impressions which was all the old Stanhope iron press could manage; and his tactic of secrecy and confrontation (he was frightened of machine-smashing by his printers) was one that was to be repeated with many of the major advances in printing technology over the ensuing 170 years, down to and including the current confrontation at Wapping between Rupert Murdoch and the National Graphical Association.

John Walter went on to establish the Times as not only the richest English-language newspaper of its day, but also (and not unconnected) as a technological trail-blazer. It remained in the vanguard up to the 1880s, when leadership passed to the USA with the perfecting of the Linotype metal typecaster by a German immigrant, Ottmar Mergenthaler. It is Mergenthaler’s hundred-year-old machine, which in its day revolutionised the economics of the press and made possible the development of mass-circulation newspapers, that is now finally being ditched from the last great metal setting centre outside India – Fleet Street.

The transition from metal to electronic systems for setting type has been punctuated by confrontation, John Walter-style, both here and in the USA. One of the earliest occurred in Virginia in the early Seventies when the management of a local newspaper announced that it would be switching to modern photo-composing equipment. The print union opposed the change, and called a strike. As soon as the printers were out of the building, the management loaded the metal machinery onto trucks and drove it to the local rubbish dump, where it was sold off for its scrap-metal value. The trick was that the management had already installed the new equipment in a neighbouring building, and had taught its managers and other non-union people to operate it. Newspaper production went on without a break, and it is said that very few of the striking printers ever got their jobs back. Not long afterwards there was a similar conflict at the Washington Post, where a strike was called and the management brought in non-union labour to operate its new (and old) equipment. The new work-force, who were landed onto the roof by helicopter in order to avoid direct confrontation with the pickets on the street below, had been specially trained at a secret training school in Oklahoma City: a tactic reminiscent of the training school for non-union labour set up by the Linotype company in the 1890s as a way of getting round union opposition to the new technology of the day, and adopted again by Rupert Murdoch, whose new machinery is being operated by men from outside the traditional printing industry trained for the job in secret.

Clearly, Murdoch (now not only a substantial US newspaper proprietor but also a US citizen) had learnt the lessons of recent US newspaper history. The techniques of confrontation which he has used against the British printing unions in the Wapping dispute may hark back to his 19th-century predecessor as proprietor of the Times, but they were perfected in the US management-union wars of the 1970s, which were quite unarguably won by the managements. Equally clearly, the British unions had not learnt the lessons. All the US experience shows that if you are an organised trade union with an established position to defend against the effects of the introduction of new technology, you do not walk out of the building (see the case of the Virginia newspaper cited above); and you do not under current US or UK trade-union legislation call an official strike. The first allows the management to get on with implementing the new technology unhindered. The second allows the management to sack you with the minimum chance of incurring legal liabilities for doing so – see the now notorious letter from Murdoch’s legal advisers. The lawyers were blunt: ‘If the moment came when it was necessary to dispense with the present work-force,’ they wrote, ‘the cheapest way would be to dismiss employees while participating in a strike.’ Yet despite the lessons from the USA in the Seventies, and from the UK provincial press, where three similar confrontations took place as recently as last year, the NGA did both: it called an official strike and brought its members out of the building, in the time-honoured manner, thus playing straight into Murdoch’s hands. There may at the time, of course, have been little else it could do. Its general secretary wryly remarked that ‘a management that wants a strike can usually get one.’

Is there an alternative to conflict? Or is there an iron inevitability, a law of history, or of technology, which dictates that, in the print business at least, men must oppose the new machines – and oppose them in vain? Some countries have found a better way. In West Germany, after a short sharp period of aggravation, a general agreement was reached for the introduction of new technology and the retaining of the people affected. In Holland the change has been spread over a number of years, with little evident pain but a lot of retraining. Even in Fleet Street there was, back in the middle Seventies, a period of hope that the new might replace the old by a process of agreement and consultation. It was, as it turned out, a vain hope. I speak as a scarred veteran of that period, engaged at that time on the detailed planning of new electronic editing and production systems which are only now coming into use in Fleet Street. After two years of hard work on the Fleet Street newspaper where I was employed, my colleagues and I were summoned to the managing director’s office to be told abruptly that it was all off: a ballot of trade-union members had gone against the grand plan, and that was it.

It had been a very grand plan. With the backing of the Royal Commission on the Press which reported at about the same time (as with most Royal Commissions its work eventually led to practically nothing), it proposed a comprehensive scheme of voluntary retirements, new pension arrangements, severance pay, retraining, and new forms of union membership and inter-union co-operation, as a context within which new technology could be amicably introduced across the whole of Fleet Street. Actually, there were two grand plans. Plan A was the public one just described and labelled ‘Programme for Action’. Plan B was a private one, in the form of a fall-back agreement between the so-called ‘quality newspapers’ that in the event of an agreement with the trade unions not being secured, the papers would band together to set up a new printing works on a ‘green field site’ using the latest technology, and tough it out together against the unions. Plan B fell foul of the inability of the Fleet Street proprietors to work together, and never got much beyond boardroom discussion. It was left to Rupert Murdoch actually to do it – at Wapping ten years later. Plan A, however, stood a good chance of success, and won a lot of support at the time – but not enough votes. It must be regretted now that the chance was lost, for the hurricane of change and job losses has hit Fleet Street with pent-up fury. A trade union which as recently as 1979, during the year-long stoppage at the Times over new technology, was able to prevent the Times being printed as far away as Frankfurt, has this time round been unable to prevent the printing of the Times as near as Wapping. What has changed?

The law has changed, making mass picketing and secondary industrial action far more difficult and, where employers are aggressive, exposing union funds to sequestration. But much more than that has changed. Outside London vicious circulation wars between ‘free sheets’ and paid-for newspapers have shattered the calm of the regional monopolies that emerged in the post-war period. Cost-cutting with the aid of new technology has become a commercial necessity, and 1985 saw technology disputes of varying severity at three locations outside London: in Portsmouth, in Wolverhampton and in Kent. This was bound to spill over into Fleet Street. But even more important, two new proprietors have arrived in Fleet Street: Robert Maxwell and Rupert Murdoch, each warriors in the tabloid newspaper circulation war. Maxwell secured large job cuts at the Mirror by threats and cajoling. Murdoch could not be slow to follow. But Murdoch is also engaged in a huge gamble in the USA – perhaps the greatest financial gamble of his career so far. He is attempting to break into the US broadcasting market by setting up what will become a fourth commercial television network to rival CBS, NBC and ABC.

As the basis for this he is attempting to put together a deal to buy six TV stations from Metromedia for a total price of $1.55 billion. Much of this money has to be raised on Wall Street, and Wall Street is well aware that the main contributors of profits to Murdoch’s world-wide publishing empire are his London newspapers. A prolonged shutdown of these papers could shatter Murdoch’s dream of becoming a major force in the world’s richest TV market. On the other hand, a dramatic increase in their profitability through a drastic reduction in the numbers of people employed on them would swing Wall Street to his support and get him the dollars he needs for his US ambitions. Murdoch thus has huge stakes riding on his Wapping venture, far exceeding the local question of the profitability of the Times and Sunday Times. It is doubtful whether the trade unions opposing him have really taken account of just how much is at stake for him, and therefore how determined he is.

Not that Murdoch is an easy man to understand. His most recent biographer remarks that

he has seldom been remiss in spotting opportunities and in putting together the means to seize them. In his hands everything, everyone could be an instrument. He was the most versatile player in Australia and among the readiest in Britain and the United States: but what would he play? He was on a random walk, and despite the ever greater accumulation of means in his hands, he contributed more and more to the spreading confusion about ends.[*]

Harry Evans had the same difficulty as the NGA is now experiencing in understanding what Murdoch was up to. Evans’s book Good Times, Bad Times, the story of how he was forced to resign from the editorship of the Times once Murdoch got tired of him, shows exactly the same bewilderment. But if managements get the trade unions they deserve (as the adage goes) I suspect that in Fleet Street the opposite is true – that trade unions got the managements they deserved. Having turned down an opportunity to negotiate change peacefully, they have now found out the price of that failure. It is harsh on the union leaders of today, who are far more adaptable to new technology than their predecessors were ten years ago, just as it is harsh on their union members. But the fact remains that it could all have been otherwise.

New technology doesn’t necessarily make more or better newspapers. It may and it may not. It simply frees resources for uses other than meeting production costs. Fleet Street is certain to need these resources to meet the next wave of attack from television, when the present structure of British television (a cosy duopoly no less riddled than Fleet Street with high-cost restrictive practices, as David Owen has recently pointed out) breaks down under the impact of the satellite systems that will deliver far more channels to the home. The essential value of the press remains unaltered whether it is produced by steam, hot metal, electronics, or by the calligraphers who to this day write out by hand the Urdu newspapers in Bombay and Bradford. Technology matters only to the extent that it enables, or inhibits, a varied press with the capacity to survive.

[*] Rupert Murdoch: A Paper Prince by George Munster, Viking, 291 pp., £12.95, 27 March, 0 670 80503 3.