News International yesterday completed the sale of its Wapping plant, scene of the bloody strike that destroyed the print unions. The course of that dispute 26 years ago has been well documented, most famously by Linda Melvern in her book The End of the Street. The world probably doesn't need another version, but as the first Times journalist to work full-time in the plant, I'd like to share my personal diary of the days leading up to the moonlight flit that changed the face of newspaper publishing in this country.
June 9 update: Thank you to everyone for the positive response to this post. Please do read through to the comments as there is a fascinating personal account from another sub of his experiences at the time - he was waiting to have an interview for casual shifts just as Charlie Wilson was making his standing-on--the-desk speech. If anyone else has personal recollections, from whatever side of the fence, please do add them or message me. Thanks.
Friday January 10, 1986
We arrived at Liverpool Street, as agreed, on the 12.17 from Colchester. We were then to call a private number to arrange a rendezvous. But we didn't need to go searching for a phone box, for there waiting for us at the end of Platform 12 was David Hopkinson, chief night editor of The Times.
He was there as a rather high-powered messenger boy for Charles Wilson, the editor and the person we were about to call. "Charlie's in a meeting and can't get away," Hoppy said. "You're to have lunch on expenses and then call him at 2."
We did as bidden, but Charlie was still too busy for us. "Call again in an hour." Again, the meetings were making escape tricky. On the fourth phone call, he sighed and reluctantly told me: "Come to Gray's Inn Road and wait at the corner of Calthorpe Street."
We met halfway up the road, his chauffeur pulled up alongside us, we were whisked inside and off we sped east.
The cloak-and-dagger stuff had started for us two days earlier, for Wilson it had been going on for more than a year.
In March 1985, Rupert Murdoch had announced plans to launch a 24-hour paper to be called the London Post. Wilson was to be its editor and it was to be produced from a new plant in Wapping. Over the year a number of key staff had been diverted from their duties on The Sun, News of the World, Times and Sunday Times to help to set up the new paper - though none was apparently based at the new plant.
For most of my colleagues on The Times, it was a given that I would be joining them. Why else would a lowly deputy chief sub have been allowed to swan around in Chicago for three months?
I had been approached by Charlie and Hoppy in February 85 about a journalist exchange experiment. I would go to America and Bob Kirley would come and work on our sports pages. "You must go immediately after the Budget," Charlie - then deputy editor - had told me with that in-your-face urgency he had.
I learnt much later that Murdoch had just decided on a "big bang" that would take all his papers to Wapping and that he was in the process of commissioning Atex to set up an editorial computer system. The Atex system was used on the Chicago Sun-Times, where Wilson had had a spell as editor.
I knew nothing of that, but by the time I left the country, plans for the Post had been announced. There was no briefing, but common sense dictated that I should learn everything I could about direct input technology.
While out there I was joined by Tony Norbury, The Times production supremo, and David Banks, The Sun night editor, both of whom had just been named as key members of the Post staff. We sat up all night talking about the new paper and Banks, who went on to edit the Mirror, spelt out his ideas of how things would work. Even with hindsight, they both appeared completely focused on the Post.
By the time I returned to London in the late summer, plans for the Post seemed to be advancing fast, and few expected to see me back at The Times. But back I was. There was a debriefing with Charlie, whose first question was had I been offered a job? "Yes, but it would be wrong to take it," I replied. "After all, if the first exchange candidate deserts, it would spoil it for everyone else."
"Kirley's staying here," he replied with a grin.
I suggested that it might be fun to go back to Chicago for another six months, which brought the riposte: "That isn't what I have in mind for you."
This was in August and I had a long wait to discover what he did have in mind.
Norbury and Banks had their stay in Chicago extended and then moved on to Philadelphia, while a succession of senior Times journalists trooped out to Illinois: Michael Hoy, Tim Austin and Richard Williams among them. They had all been named as assistant editors of the Post.
In October Charles Douglas-Home, The Times editor, died after a long and extraordinarily bravely borne illness, to be succeeded by Charlie Wilson. Nick Lloyd, editor of the News of the World, was to take over the Post.
All the time, the print unions and Rupert Murdoch were adopting more and more provocative tactics over the futures of the News International titles. The Wapping plant had been bought in 1982 as a "print shed" - even Murdoch didn't expect journalists to work there. Another printworks at Kinning Park near Glasgow had been refurbished, but lay idle. Talks over these plants had been going on for months and when one round broke down in 1984, an NGA man famously threw a box of matches over the table, shouting at Murdoch: "Why don't you just burn the place down. Don't you understand? We're never going to go there." How right he was.
By February 1985 Murdoch was so fed up with what he saw as the unions' high-handedness that he resolved to move all his papers to Wapping, and he started to take an even tougher stance in negotiations. There would be no closed shop and material would be 'directly input' by journalists.
Eddie Shah had confronted Tony Dubbins of the NGA, below, over this technology in a vicious dispute in Warrington a couple of years earlier, now Murdoch was ready to do the same. This time there would be much more than a few local papers at stake. The provinces had moved onto paste-up and web offset decades before, Fleet Street was the last bastion of hot metal and restrictive practices - or Spanish customs as the employers would have it. We were still in an era of imaginary workers being signed in as M. Mouse and their wages - at double the national average - were split among the genuine workers. Fathers of the union chapels, rather than newspaper managements, did the hiring (there wasn't much firing) and proprietors had for decades been unable to seize back control. Papers could be halted on a whim.
Now the big selling point was that journalists would be able to reclaim their papers; their work could not be sabotaged by wildcat action from irresponsible, overpaid printworkers.
At the end of December Murdoch returned from his winter skiing holiday in Aspen, Colorado, and prepared to dedicate himself to the fight for Wapping. He announced that the Post would be launched on March 17 and that he would be transferring production of The Sun and the News of the World to the new plant, even though there was no deal with the printworkers. At the same time the unions decided to hold a strike ballot on a jobs-for-life claim in mid-January. On January 6, a draconian draft house agreement for the Post was revealed.
Tuesday January 7, 1985
At last, after all the office rumours, I was called into Charlie's office for the conversation I had been expecting for months. But it didn't go the way I had anticipated. Had I wanted to join the Post? The past tense threw me. What did JG - my husband, who had joined the Times foreign subs' desk in November - think of new technology? Was he in the NUJ?
Why all this interest in JG? I was the one who had gone to Chicago, I was the long-serving Times sub. "You're going to send him to Wapping," I said.
"I want to send you both - on Monday."
Nick Lloyd was now getting down to putting his team together. We could go for four months to see the paper through its launch and then return to our Times jobs if we wanted.
We then discussed ideas for The Times, which may seem odd in retrospect, but there didn't seem to be anything strange at the time. He was, after all, a relatively new editor. If I had a magic wand, what job would I like? How should the subbing team be reorganised? All minutiae.
David Flynn, the executive editor, appeared and loitered for a bit before being told roundly to piss off. The discussion continued. I was dismayed that JG was being brought into the picture, but Wilson was adamant that this was all too secret and that nobody could help themselves when it came to pillow talk. Well, the marriage was not in any state for that to be an issue, but he wasn't to be dissuaded. We had a day to think it through; he wanted an answer by Friday, and if we agreed, he would take us on a tour of the plant. Tomorrow would be my last night at Gray's Inn Road and I was to say nothing to anyone.
Friday January 10
And so, after two days of domestic arguing and sleepless nights, here we were in a shiny black Daimler for the short hop to Wapping. Charlie was driving, I was in the passenger seat, JG in the back. Charlie talked a bit on his car phone, chatted about Chicago, new technology and insisted that this was going to be a wonderful opportunity. His timing was perfect. As we reached the end of Virginia Street and pulled up at the plant, he looked at me and said: "I want you to go and set up an editorial system for The Times."
We were left open-mouthed as he hopped out to get us some passes - such things were unheard of in Gray's Inn Road. He was already wearing a laminated ID card that read 'News International Tower Hamlets Plant Charles Wilson'. I looked up at the high fences, the huge iron gates, the video cameras and the barriers and gasped. "Oh God. This is going to be another Grunwick." What had we let ourselves in for?
Inside the plant, we drove down to the old rum warehouse that was to be home to the Times and the Sunday Times. It was cavernous with huge pipes running along the ceiling; ornate curved brickwork where you felt there should be windows. It looked like a carpet warehouse, stocked with VDUs instead of rugs.
Charlie showed us the backbench, picture desk, news desk, and then walked the length of the building pointing out where the reporters, business, sport and features would live. There didn't seem to be room for everyone. At the far end was the editor's office - complete with a ramp for Charlie Douglas-Home's wheelchair. So this had been in detailed planning for very long time.
For the first time I wondered if there was ever going to be a London Post. There was certainly no sign of it here. And no sign of Nick Lloyd.
I was to work out how the home news should be set up, JG was to focus on foreign subbing. Of course we raised questions about jobs and strike-breaking, but Charlie played that down - and anyway, we were here now. There was no going back. Gray's Inn Road was out of bounds. It was exciting, frightening, earth-shattering.
Monday, January 13
The first day. Tony Norbury was there to greet us and to give us both log-ons. JG was taken off to the Sunday Times building to learn how to use an Atex machine, leaving me alone in the Times office. And I had been duped again. I thought I was going to set up a system, but Tony had already done so. There was a log-on for everyone, a system of copy queues. I was there to test it and see whether it could be made to work.
Charlie appeared and made a joke about booking tickets to New York or somewhere. It took me a moment to realise he was likening my tapping at the keyboard to that of a travel agent.
Then Murdoch arrived with Tony and asked if we could produce a paper on Day One. He didn't wait for an answer before declaring that we could "with half a dozen subs".
The Sunday Times had announced the day before that it was to produce a new section that had been made possible by the new plant. Media watchers were predicting the bloodiest Fleet Street war in 40 years. The battle lines were being drawn: the unions were voting on a strike unaware that Murdoch was marshalling new-tech troops. I felt as though I was being used as cannon fodder and was furious that Charlie had not been more honest.
Tuesday, January 14
Security men were patrolling the green field inside the huge iron fence, but as the day wore on they were replaced by workers installing the most vicious barbed wire coils I had ever seen.
Any doubts that there was violence ahead were dispelled by a trip to the security room where I was to have my photograph taken for the entry pass that was to be carried by everyone in the plant. On the wall was a map of Greater London with pins dotted around it like in the old war-rooms of the black and white films we watched as children. Each one represented a Wapping worker's home, to help the security chief to organise the busing operation. We were apparently to be ferried into work in the provocative armed vehicles used in the miners' strike. Pick-up points with ample parking spaces were to be organised and hourly shuttles run. the pick-up points would vary from day to day to beat saboteurs.
Hoppy and Wilson paid brief visits during the afternoon, but I remained the only one concentrating on journalism, struggling with an inadequate PA service. JG was still being trained next door, but apart from the internal message system, he didn't seem to have mastered much. Given a story to sub, he didn't know where to start. God knows what would happen when 18 untrained dozies tried to bring out The Times.
Wednesday, January 15
Tim Austin appeared to assume his new duties on the Post. He had clearly been fed the same line as we had, and was equally disillusioned when he realised the truth. He had been globe-trotting for nine months in preparation for the new paper - yet he hadn't been taught how to use Atex.
Outside, the prospect grew grimmer by the hour. The frightening barbed wire was being double-banked inside the fence and was in evidence all over the site; the roofs were being fireproofed to protect them from possible petrol bombings.
I went down into the basement to the composing room and was surprised to find it in full swing. It was staffed by jockeys, plumbers, electricians - anyone who wanted to learn to make up a page. There were dummy pages all over the place, all of which had been copied from back numbers of real papers. The comps were thrilled to have a real journalist giving them fresh material to work on.
Thursday, January 16
My first new-tech page was waiting for me when I arrived. It needed three paragraphs cut - compared with the yards of galleys that had to be chopped when subs had to cast off by counting every word. I had hoped for greater accuracy.
David Flynn and Colin Webb, the deputy editor, both arrived for an update and wandered off. Arthur Gould, one of two night editors, came for a training session before returning to Gray's Inn Road for his usual ten-hour shift on the backbench. He was the only person allowed to work in both offices. He was to come to Wapping full time the following week on the pretext of taking a short-notice holiday to visit his sick mother in Darlington.
We were now being asked to help to prepare the controversial Sunday Times supplement on the future of Fleet Street. There was little point in rebelling. We were heading helter skelter for the great showdown.
Friday, January 17
The morning brought two new arrivals: Mel Webb from sport and my old Chicago exchange partner Bob Kirley. He had been deported in October because his work permit wasn't in order, but now that had been sorted out. How convenient.
Mel was distressed about being sold the line of going to the Post only to find himself in an undercover Times operation. He was the first NUJ member to join us and was naturally fearful that he would be booted out of the union. Couldn't there have been a more honest approach, he asked - as we had all done before him.
JG said that if my conscience was playing up, I should tackle Wilson. But what was there to say? He was surely as worried for himself and his family - he had a five-month-old baby - as we were.
Sunday January 19
The first Wapping-produced newsprint hit the streets with publication of the Sunday Times special supplement. It included a 12-page feature on the plant, which could, it said ominously, "produce more than one paper". Murdoch was interviewed for the section and insisted that he was not out to get the unions and that there was no dispute with them. "They have refused to work at Wapping, and agreements are in place at our existing plants."
There was also an enlightening piece on the clandestine arrangements to get the Atex system imported and installed. Special companies had been set up and all dealings were through Atex's American HQ, leaving its British offshoot in the dark.
Monday, January 20
For once there was no new contingent of Times folk, although I saw Patsy Chapman and her husband Dave Clark arrive for their first day. Dave was an old colleague from Colchester who now worked for the News of the World. Patsy, one of the best subs I've known, had taken over from David Banks as Sun night editor. She would go on to become deputy editor and to edit the NoW.
More barbed wire, floodlights and fencing were going up and on Panorama that night Fred Emery, a former Times home editor, coined the phrase Fortress Wapping.
Mel Webb was still disconcerted. He hadn't been officially seconded to the Post and he was concerned about the yarn spun to colleagues that he had "personal problems".
As far as The Times sports staff were concerned, Bob Kirley wasn't even in the country. He had been contacted in Chicago and secretly brought back by Charlie Wilson, his papers miraculously in order.
Downstairs, the comps were willing and friendly. There was none of that "Don't touch the type or we'll all walk out." They had all been recruited from the electricians' union's unemployed list, although none of them was out of work before arriving in Wapping. They mostly came from the Southampton area and had been trained over four months. They were flexible in all composing room jobs, but apparently not the press hall. They had already produced loads of dummy pages and said that one night two million copies of a tabloid had been run off. Certainly there had been rumours of dummy Posts being in circulation the previous autumn. New recruits were arriving at the rate of 16 a week and there were now about 400 on site.
At lunchtime I ventured into the new canteen in the big building across the internal road and found Murdoch behind me in the queue for fish and chips.
Tuesday, January 21
Still more barbed wire was going up. As expected, the print unions voted overwhelmingly for a strike. Brenda Dean of Sogat, above, seemed keen to do a deal separately from the NGA and asked for a meeting, but Murdoch upped the ante with a fresh set of demands. Having been quoted in the ST supplement as saying there was no dispute and that there were agreements in place at the existing plants, he now wanted no-strike deals at Bouverie Street and Gray's Inn Road.
The Times chapel met and voted not to go to Wapping, but agreed to cross picket lines to go to work at Gray's Inn Road. In the rum warehouse we were meanwhile told that we were to prepare a "shadow" edition of the paper the next day.
A single bobby was on patrol outside the plant.
Wednesday, January 22
The plan for the shadow paper was aborted, so we continued monitoring the news and half-heartedly producing pretend pages.
Wilson turned up on breakfast TV then brought another tour around, including David Tytler, David Blake and Alastair Brett.
The unions went to the TUC, which called an emergency meeting for next Tuesday - a strange piece of timins since by then a strike might well have already started. A meeting between the unions and Murdoch was to take place the next day, but only Bouverie Street and Gray's Inn Road were on the agenda.
Meanwhile, we were to start preparing the Sunday Times.
The lone bobby outside had been replaced by a panda car.
Thursday, January 23
Today's tourists included Chris McKane, John Brian, John Mair and Mike Crozier among others. John Brian showed his gentle human nature by going straight up to Arthur - his backbench sparring partner - and saying "Arthur...how's your mother?" Even with the evidence before his eyes, he didn't believe the ailing old lady story was just a ruse. This was the first tour to be told the truth about what was going on. As in previous days, a couple 'fell off' the end and stayed to work in Wapping; this time it was Mair and Crozier.
Alan Howe, a former production chief, had reappeared from a sojourn with the Australian, just in time to put his interest in new technology to practical use. Paul Wagner, a former Sun-Times colleague, would be arriving from Chicago the next day.
Murdoch met the unions, but they walked out after two hours. Brenda Dean said a strike was almost inevitable and Murdoch described the collapse of talks about Bouverie Street and Gray's Inn Road as a tragedy.
The policemen were now in the plant and eating in the canteen.
Friday, January 24
A day of waiting. Murdoch was constantly around, smiling at first, then laying into some poor tired Sunday Times chap who was doing his best to put his paper together - at this point all the 'working' journalists were in the Times office, while the ST building was used for training. the copy for the arts page had gone astray and a house ad had been put in its place. What had happened? Murdoch demanded. Why was the copy late and why hadn't anyone chased it up? "What were you all doing? Having a crap?" he thundered.
Later he was overheard on the phone to someone apparently pleading for a secretary's job. "It's too late," he said. "She's got to write a letter of resignation and put it on the desk now. She didn't come out of Sogat..."
I was dashing around trying to help everyone with formatting, Tony Norbury, exhausted after months of secrecy, long days and nights and snatches of sleep on the plant, was getting more and more agitated. Wilson brought round another tour - Tony Allaway and a few sports people among them - and, as ever, a couple stayed to learn the new machines.
Everyone was tense. At 7pm, the announcement finally came: the printers were on strike. JG took great pleasure in telling the proprietor: "Mr Murdoch, it is now official. Your workers are on strike." He smiled and replied: "That's just what I wanted."
In Bouverie Street, Kelvin McKenzie was in bullish form telling Sun journalists that the print unions had no longer got them by the balls. In Gray's Inn Road, Charlie Wilson was making his famous standing-on-the-table-in-his-shirtsleeves speech. He was sorry he had not been able to speak earlier, but the storm had broken. Monday's paper would be written and published at Wapping. "I am here to invite you to come along and help us do it," he said. But this was no invitation, it was a threat: those who did not come would be sacked.
The Sun and NoW journalists voted to accept the £2,000 on offer for the switch to Wapping. The Times chapel couldn't decide and agreed to meet the next day.
Saturday January 25
Back at the plant, Arthur, JG and Tim started keying in copy for the Monday Times while I did what I could to help the ST team.
At Gray's Inn Road the chapel met at 2 and adjourned after four hours. They were proposing to go to Wapping, but not to use the technology. This did not seem a viable option.
There had been a handful of pickets outside in the morning, but news that the NoW and ST were printing at the plant brought out the foundry men and by the time we went home a couple of hundred had gathered.
Sunday January 26
In spite of the rather strange chapel decision yesterday, all the subs turned up at 8am as instructed and went off for their training. Some had not got home the previous night and those who had enjoyed little sleep. There were people in borrowed shirts and ties and usually clean-shaven men sporting stubble. They were as tired as we who had been in the plant for days and nights on end. We'd been bashing away at screens, they had been in endless meetings. And there was still another to go to: that afternoon they all went back and finally voted 'yes' to coming to Wapping.
The old Wapping hands now had to put new-found skills into practice. Tim had a little team to do the foreign pages, I did home and helped Arthur with the front; Chris McKane, with next to no training, bravely tackled the intricacies of the court page - and with great success.
Murdoch was, of course, in the print hall to push the button to start the presses and to see the first copies come off with great fanfare. The Sun, splashing on itself, looked absolutely fantastic, just like any other day's paper; The Times, which led on Westland, was less so, but we had done it. Whatever the qualms about the people outside and the ethics of the strategy, you could not take away the achievement of that small band. Everyone gathered on the Times backbench: Murdoch, McKenzie, David Banks, Wilson and there was champagne for all.
There was no question of driving home, so we went back to the Tower hotel and sat up til 2am watching the Superbowl. It seemed appropriate that the Chicago Bears should win by a mile.
Monday, January 27
Up at 6.40am with an aching head and back to work. Most of the paper's NUJ members reluctantly appeared, bringing with them a new set of problems. We now had to produce a paper with an untrained workforce and none of the pioneering spirit that had kept us going the previous night. The system struggled to cope with a hundred trainees and a similar number trying to get the paper out for real. There were terrible hiccups in getting copy to put in the paper. The reporters were more interested in finding their desks and files and setting up camp than in writing stories; PA was preoccupied with Westland and offering little else. There were problems, too, with phoned copy: the printers were constantly ringing the copytakers and blocking the lines so journalists couldn't get through. Everyone was uncomfortable, scared, guilty about what was happening. Everything was late - and we didn't even get the Wapping story right. We reported that the ST had voted to stay away, when they had, in fact, finally decided to acquiesce.
Tuesday, January 28
The first big test. The paper was coming together quite nicely, but at 5pm there was no sign of a splash. I happened to look up at the TV and yelled: "I think we have a splash." The space shuttle had exploded just after lift-off, killing all seven crew.
It was amazing how everything came together. We ripped out three home pages and created a spread on pages 2 and 3. It doesn't seem much compared with what can be achieved now, but then it was a stunning turnaround. We had papers in our hands within four hours of the shuttle crashing, something that would never have happened in Gray's Inn Road. And page one looked spectacular with its seven-column picture; the best Times front I had ever seen.
The new era had begun.
The progress of the Wapping dispute has been recorded by so many that my input is unnecessary. Everyone knows about the "white mice" delivery vans, the TNT lorries, the buses, the Saturday night confrontations. It was a horrible time. The unions finally caved in after a year. The strikers received payoffs totalling about £40m, a fraction of what they could have claimed in redundancy a year earlier.
By then the plants in Wapping and Kinning Park were producing more than 30m papers a week with a far smaller workforce, lifting News International profits by some 85 per cent.
There was, of course, never a London Post. Murdoch later admitted that he had never wanted to publish a London evening paper, but he was quite happy to let the world - and particularly Robert Maxwell, whose London Daily News came and went (with the help of David Flynn) in 1987 - believe that he did.
The End of the Street by Linda Melvern, Methuen 1986
Bad News by John Lang and Graham Dodkins, Spokesman Books, 2011
Hot Mettle by Brenda Dean, Politico's Publishing, 2007
Murdoch by William Shawcross, Simon & Schuster, 1993, updated 2003
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