Diary

Sean French

Shortly after the Sunday Times’s enforced move into the London Docklands, David Blundy and Jon Swain were strolling towards the new production plant’s heavily-guarded entrance. These two foreign correspondents are used to witnessing military activity (you may remember Swain as a character in Roland Joffe’s movie, The Killing Fields), but they were astonished to see an armoured car with a full complement of Royal Marines apparently patrolling inside the heavily-fortified perimeter fence. Had Rupert Murdoch called in the Armed Forces?

The truth turned out to be less sinister. The military vehicle had been summoned by the Sun newspaper in order to transport their big-busted page-three girl, Samantha Fox, inside the wire for a photo call. Not long afterwards the resulting picture was splashed across the front page of the Sun. The ‘story’ read:

EYES FRONT! Sexy soldier Sam Fox inspects her loyal troops in the war of Wapping.

  Bravely pointing her bazookas at the enemy lines, she advanced on the Sun’s besieged new offices yesterday.

  And repelling print union pickets, she thrust forward in an armoured truck to inspect our troops. The lads’ eyes really lit up at the Wapping front.

The rhetoric of Fortress Falklands had been transferred to Fortress Wapping as an apt celebration of Murdoch’s victory. The victory was almost total: by shifting his four news-papers – the Times, Sunday Times, Sun and News of the World – down to the new plant at Wapping, Murdoch had eliminated the old print unions (the NGA and Sogat 82) from the production process. Six thousand of his employees had been sacked without a penny of compensation having to be paid – a saving of something like fifty million pounds.

Where were the journalists during all of this? January passed in a flurry of rumours, suspicions, union meetings and desperate resolutions. Some journalists were ordered down to Wapping for ‘training’ (some went, some refused), I was sent on a crash computer course at a secret address in the West End, within a week we wore out three fathers of our NUJ chapel. The manoeuvrings on every side were complicated and confused and, in retrospect, boring and pointless: all that matters is that the management and our editor, Andrew Neil, told us nothing of their true intentions.

By contrast, the crisis itself was simple. Rupert Murdoch demanded a level of compulsory redundancies of his Sogat 82 and NGA employees that he knew they would not accept. The two unions took the bait and on Friday, 24 January, after a ballot, they went on strike. Murdoch immediately dismissed them. The journalists of the Sunday Times were summoned to a meeting on Monday morning at the Mount Pleasant Hotel, around the corner from our offices in the Gray’s Inn Road. We wait for the management’s offer but it turns out that there is no offer. In return for a salary increase of £2000 a year and membership of a private health scheme all journalists must report at the Wapping plant tomorrow or be sacked. This deal has already been accepted by the journalists on the Sun and News of the World (by overwhelming majorities) and on the Times (by a majority of two to one). It is not negotiable in any aspect.

When Andrew Neil concludes his speech and sits down to take questions there is at first, as journalists tend to say on occasions like this, a stunned silence. The first to speak is Don Berry, a senior editor with over 17 years’ service on the paper. Speaking slowly, his voice trembling slightly, he says that the journalists of the Sunday Times have been treated with contempt: we have been told lies and our house agreement (guaranteeing negotiations over any major change in working conditions) has been flagrantly violated. He is as sick of the printers as anyone else, and as eager to make use of the new technology: but if we go down to Wapping tomorrow with £2000 in our pockets – simply to help Rupert Murdoch avoid paying redundancy to workers he doesn’t need any more – then what is left of the spirit of the paper we work for? Don Berry is scarcely one of the paper’s firebrands, nor even an electric orator, but the response from the 130-strong staff is prolonged, emotional applause. The most startling contribution to the meeting comes from the paper’s young property correspondent, the normally shy Caroline McGhie: ‘Do you realise,’ she asks Andrew Neil, ‘that you have betrayed your own journalists and lost our confidence entirely?’

As the afternoon meeting creaks into motion I begin to understand how divided the opposition to Murdoch is. First we are addressed by Harry Conroy, the General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists. He relays to us the instruction of the national executive committee, which is that we should stay out of Wapping – largely, it seems, to help our comrades in the NGA and Sogat gain control over the printing jobs there. Most of us are shocked by Murdoch’s dismissal of 6000 workers, including not just fatcat printers but all our secretaries, the cleaners, the accounts department and so on. But it is clear that the prospect of being rid of the hated NGA is itself enough to persuade some journalists to go down to Wapping. I sympathise: but can never forget that Murdoch was happy to co-operate with the NGA as long as they worked in his favour, keeping the price of operating a newspaper so high that it staved off the competition.

The meeting continues and I am still undecided. I am at heart a sheep and all I want is one journalist to come up with an honourable reason for taking the money and the first armoured coach down to Wapping. No such reason is forthcoming. A couple of people stand up to bellow the obvious questions. Why the hell did we expect anything different from someone like Murdoch? What do we think we will gain by holding out? Simon Freeman counters by saying that if we go now, tamely and without negotiation, when we actually have some power, then we might as well forget about union organisation down at Wapping. Murdoch will have won and that will be that.

We vote on the following motion: ‘In view of the fact that the management refuses to negotiate on its ultimatum, concerning Sunday Times journalists moving to Wapping, this chapel instructs its members not to go.’ The wording is vague and it later emerges that some voted against it because they thought it would prevent them ever going there. Also inevitably opposed to the motion is that substantial portion of the staff which doesn’t work from the office, so will get the pay rise without having to go to Wapping at all. I vote for the motion, but it is defeated by the close margin of 68 votes to 60.

For the 68 it is now next-stop Wapping. The rest of us have a dilemma. We can accept the majority decision and report to Wapping. Or we can make the (probably futile) protest of reporting for work at the Gray’s Inn Road. On the morning of Tuesday, 28 January I step off the number 46 bus expecting to be greeted on the front steps of the Sunday Times building by Peter Roberts, the Managing Editor, dispensing dismissal notices like handbills. Everything seems quite normal, however, though the building is thinly populated. I meet one friend who tells me that he has lived through the worst night of his life but has opted for Wapping because of children and mortgage. In another room I see a journalist also bound for Wapping; she is sobbing uncontrollably. (The following day she comes back.) I wander round the corridors as I might after a plague to see who survives. Most of the Features department remain, including Don Berry; several from the business pages; the whole ‘Screen’ department; the Literary department, which consists of Claire Tomalin (editor), me (deputy) and Anne Boston; and the Arts Editor, John Whitley. (The Deputy Arts Editor, ex-Sun journalist Penny Perrick, and the arts sub-editor, Nigella Lawson, have gone to Wapping.)

The first meeting of the ‘refuseniks’, numbering about thirty, takes place after lunch. The young news reporter Anne Spackman explains that the ideals that brought her into journalism also made her join our protest. Now she feels she must go to Wapping: already, in the half-day she has been here, journalists from outside the paper have been ringing the news desk trying to get her job.

Claire and I return to our room. We have a fine selection of reviews but unfortunately no newspaper to put them in. (When we arrive the following morning we discover that Penny Perrick has been in the night like the tooth fairy and collected them all.) During the afternoon we are visited by Peter Roberts and the Foreign Editor, Stephen Milligan (a close associate of Neil). Both are clearly upset by what has happened. What can be done to get us down there?

This is a good question. What are our demands? At a meeting the following morning, one refusenik comments that since our principal demand is Andrew Neil’s head on a platter, the dispute may prove hard to resolve. Wednesday is greatly enlivened by the presence of Ian Jack, who is one of the best journalists left on the paper. Ian voted to go to Wapping, went straight there, but subsequently, driven by journalistic curiosity, spent more of the week in Gray’s Inn Road than most of the refuseniks.

Tales of horror and chaos drift up from Wapping. There are apparently just 60 phone lines serving the whole complex, so it’s almost impossible to phone in or out. There is also the problem of finding anything to put in the paper. The City Editor becomes so desperate he returns to the Gray’s Inn Road to get some stories off the spike from previous months.

The revolt of the refuseniks has been taken more seriously than we expected. Andrew Neil’s failure to bring more than three-quarters of his staff down to Wapping with him has been seen as a personal humiliation and the split in the staff has also had a depressing effect on morale. A meeting of senior staff in Wapping has been called to try to establish a bridge between Wapping and the Gray’s Inn Road. Clearly not all the journalists down there feel the same way, however. The Sunday Times theatre critic, John Peter, has been lending a hand in the depleted Wapping literary section. I later discover that on Friday he rang Peter Ackroyd (one of our reviewers) to ask if he would like his name put forward as either arts or literary editor. Ackroyd declined.

By Wednesday afternoon morale in the Gray’s Inn Road is not too high either. The office seems to be decaying around us. The cleaners have all been sacked and the rubbish seems to be taking over. We consider sending it down to Wapping where they would probably put it into the paper. The refuseniks are now split. Some like Don Berry and Claire Tomalin are so appalled that they will not go to Wapping under any conditions. (This decision of principle will cost Berry about £50,000 in lost redundancy payments.) Some are on the verge of going to Wapping. Others are holding out for a substantial concession from the management. At six o’clock, when the protest looks on the verge of collapse, a call comes from Ian Jack at Wapping. Tomorrow Peter Roberts will come to tell us that the management is willing to negotiate with the Sunday Times journalists over any aspect of the house agreement except the money. Obviously this is an offer that would get us down to Wapping without any firm commitment from the management. So, on Thursday morning, John Lovesey, the most senior editor among the refuseniks apart from Don Berry, conceives an ingenious formula that will allow the management to show their good faith. Any journalist who wishes can forgo the £2000 raise but if he is unhappy at the end of four months, he can leave without giving notice and with four months’ salary.

The offer seems almost embarrassingly generous on our part, but there is an ominously long delay before Murdoch responds. He will accept the offer on two conditions: that all the refuseniks go to Wapping and that no one speaks to the press or television. It is clear that Murdoch wants everyone to be seen going to Wapping. For Claire Tomalin this proves the breaking point.

By Friday it is clear that anyone who intends to stay with the Sunday Times will have to go to Wapping fairly soon. We hear rumours that down in Dockland sympathy with the refuseniks has turned to resentment. The journalists working their arses off behind the wire getting the paper out are becoming sick of the self-appointed consciences of the Sunday Times sitting in the Gray’s Inn Road. At lunchtime two-thirds of the refuseniks leave for Wapping amid handshakes, hugs and tears. I decide that I need the weekend to think about the future. Virtually everyone I care about on the paper – refusenik or not – has gone down to Wapping with the intention of taking Murdoch’s money while looking for work elsewhere. I’m not sure I can face that. It’s only the thought of the ever-embattled book pages, as well as my house, that makes me consider Wapping.

On Sunday afternoon the Arts Editor John Whitley phones me at home. The Sunday Times Deputy Editor, Ivan Fallon, has given the Literary department a bit of a shake-up. The new Literary Editor is Penny Perrick, not hitherto known for her expertise in this field. The new Deputy Literary Editor (I had assumed it was still my job) is Nigella Lawson. I am to be moved sideways to the Arts department where I can do no harm. With a great sense of relief I tell John that I won’t be going in. On Monday morning I go into the Gray’s Inn Road offices to clear out my desk. I cram unanswered letters, books, pens and files into a Post Office bag and make my way out through the pickets, having got the sack in the most literal sense. They assume I am transferring to Wapping and howl ‘Scab! Scab!’