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Rupert Murdoch’s Legacy, Part III

Walking down Fleet Street today, it’s easy to forget that this was once the beating heart of British journalism. Over 100,000 people worked for newspapers based in the neighbourhood.

Elon Musk in Australian drag.

Now they’re all gone.

If we were to blame one man for this change, we could do worse than finger Rupert Murdoch.

The Australian media tycoon built an empire on Fleet Street before making it redundant.

This story begins with a landmark acquisition.

It was 1981 when Murdoch bought The Times and The Sunday Times from the Thomson Corporation.

Facing his critics, the tabloid king needed to reassure the staff of his intentions and his commitment to high editorial standards.

“There will be no fundamental change in the characteristics,” he said at a press conference.

“I am not seeking to acquire these newspapers in order to change them into something entirely different.”

The Australian stood between two Fleet Street legends, William Rees-Mogg, editor of The Times, and Harold Evans, editor of The Sunday Times.

“This new undertaking I regard as the most exciting challenge of my life,” Murdoch said.

Murdoch would jokingly describe himself and his company as “barbarians at the gates”.

He had already built a multinational media enterprise after a slew of deals buying up tabloids. This deal was different.

Historically, The Times is the most prestigious newspaper in the country. It’s still the UK’s official paper of record.

Furthermore, it is one of the most important publications in the history of modern media.

Many people were against the deal because Rupert Murdoch already owned two major national newspapers.

The Monopolies Commission could have vetoed his acquisition, but it did not.

Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil would later attribute this to Murdoch’s political connections.

The Australian publisher’s UK tabloids played a critical role in shoring up the Conservative vote in the 1979 general election.

Larry Lamb, The Sun editor at the time, had even written speeches for Margaret Thatcher and penned a lengthy editorial calling on readers to vote Tory.

Lamb was awarded knighthood for his services to Thatcherism.

Rupert Murdoch was a great fan of the Iron Lady. His newspapers supported the Thatcher government through thick and thin in the 1980s.

The Sun lambasted and mocked Labour leaders, trade union officials and the so-called loony left.

The two of them had common enemies. So, it should have been no surprise when Thatcher and Murdoch declared war on the print unions of Fleet Street.

Wapping Forever

When Murdoch bought the paper, The Times had just lost 96 million copies due to industrial action in the past year.

Murdoch was no stranger to union negotiations. He gave the print unions assurances on pay and working conditions.

Behind closed doors, Murdoch was considering his options.

He flew in union buster Bill O’Neill to negotiate with the print unions on behalf of the company. The stage was set for a turning point in British newspaper history.

Trade unions were embedded in every aspect of Fleet Street life in those days.

Print unions such as the NGA and SOGAT had established closed shops to guarantee high pay and decent working conditions for their members.

The problem was that the Fleet Street printing operations ran on antiquated presses. Every technological advance had to be negotiated with the unions for fear of job losses.

Attempts by William Rees-Mogg to introduce computers were opposed by the unions for this very reason.

Murdoch would achieve more than Rees-Mogg ever hoped. He would break the back of organised labour in UK media.

The Australian publisher had the company set up the Wapping plant to produce a new paper called The London Post. Print unions began competing for jobs at the plant.

The problem was there was no new tabloid.

The London Post was just a ruse to allow the company time to organise a print works with new technology.

PCs would enable journalists to assemble newspapers before they went to print.

The Wapping plant would not need as many workers as the Fleet Street operation. This was not clear to the print unions until it was too late.

Even the journalists working for Murdoch were oblivious to the plan.

News Corp set out to abolish the closed shop in November 1985.

The company wanted to expand the powers of management over a flexible workforce with no strikes and no lock-outs.

The talks dragged on into January 1986 when Murdoch sacked 6,000 print workers overnight.

Murdoch had secured a deal with a strikebreaking union of electricians to provide the manpower to keep the Wapping operation running.

He didn’t need to meet the demands of the unions any longer. New companies were set up just for the printing operations of each newspaper.

This complicated the crisis of the News Corp sale. Print workers descended on the Wapping plant to begin the hard work of picketing.

‘Fortress Wapping’, as the plant became known, was protected by a large iron barrier festooned with razor wire.

All News Corp-owned newspapers were moved to the Wapping plant.

The company had bought a trucking firm to bypass the railways to distribute the printing materials.

Margaret Thatcher backed a brutal police response, just as she had against the 1984 miners’ strike.

Thatcher singled out the print unions in public statements. She claimed they were a “revolutionary minority” fighting to create public disorder.

Police were brought in from all over the country to block the protesters.

Of course, the pretext was to protect the strikebreakers and maintain order. Many strikers and East End locals accused the police of violent tactics.

Some of the cops (who received generous overtime) would wave cash at the workers while displaying copies of The Sun and The Sunday Times in their vans.

Over 1,200 people were arrested, while more than 400 police officers were injured.

Thousands of complaints were made about police misconduct during the Wapping dispute, but no officer was ever prosecuted.

It was a dramatic and violent 54 weeks. Tear gas, truncheons, and horse charges were the norm. This was the reality of the Wapping dispute.

It finally ended in February 1987 in a terrible defeat for organised labour.

During the strike, Rupert Murdoch hoped to keep the National Union of Journalists on board with his plans.

The company offered NUJ members a new health plan and a raise, while the NUJ leadership tried in vain to get journalists to oppose Murdoch.

Refusenik journalists who didn’t support the Wapping plan were fired. The choice between more money or getting sacked wasn’t a choice for most hacks.

Naturally, most of the British press sided with Murdoch against the unions that had cost them so many editions over the years.

A new consensus was emerging in UK media.

Today, even the best of liberal journalists tend to defend Murdoch’s victory over print workers.

Former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger made this anti-worker case in Prospect last year in a piece to mark Murdoch’s ‘retirement’.

Ex-Sun editor David Yelland claimed every UK journalist owes Rupert Murdoch 10% to 20% of their salary because of the ‘Wapping Revolution’. The shift to automation transformed the newspaper industry, and of course, we should be grateful.

Newspapers would go from a heavy manufacturing sector to a post-industrial, digital sector. The media would come to be very similar to the professional services industry.

National newspapers downsized with the rise of the Internet or disappeared altogether. The days of over-staffed newsrooms and long lunches were over.

Furthermore, there was nothing to anchor newspapers in Fleet Street anymore.

Height of Power

After the Wapping dispute, News Corp continued its expansion worldwide.

Rupert Murdoch was a triumphant figure in global media. He seemed to have conquered almost every foe in sight.

From multiple broadcast holdings in Australia and the UK to Christian publishers in the US, his assets mushroomed.

News Corp is best known for launching Fox News as an alternative to CNN when it was clear Murdoch would never get to buy the brand.

“Although it wasn’t pleasant, I’m certainly very, very proud of it. And it’ll be part of my legacy,” Murdoch told Press Gazette in a 2005 interview.

Today, the Daily Mail General Trust is now the biggest newspaper company in the UK.

The Murdoch papers have shrunk in reach and influence since the phone hacking scandal forced the 2011 closure of The News Of The World.

There is speculation that Lachlan Murdoch will favour a turn towards the US and digital content over the UK and traditional print copy.

Former Sun editor Kelvin Mackenzie shares some of this analysis.

Mackenzie thinks Lachlan will move away from traditional newspapers, especially in the UK. He predicts that The Sun will become a digital-only product.

This may mean The Times and The Sunday Times will get new ownership.

Michael Wolff speculates that the demise of News Corp will follow soon after the old man has shuffled off this mortal coil.

We may have reached peak Murdoch years ago, and the old man is more marginal than he once was.

But Rupert Murdoch’s legacy is still with us: a more precarious, post-industrial media industry.

Echoes can still be heard today in Axel Springer’s repeat declarations about its intention to replace journalists with AI.

This was part three of a series on Rupert Murdoch’s legacy in UK media. Here you can read part one and part two.

Photograph courtesy of Matt Brown. Published under a Creative Commons license.