Twenty five years ago Rupert Murdoch broke the print trade unions. Now he is poised to own a media company worth more than the combined revenue of the BBC, ITV, C4 and Channel 5.
It's an eerie coincidence of timing. This week 25 years ago Rupert Murdoch was in London to oversee the mass sacking of five-and-a half thousand print workers on The Times, Sunday Times, News of the World and The Sun. He also put to the journalists an offer most of them couldn't refuse - move to Wapping or you don't have a job.
He's back now, trying to sort out the growing crisis surrounding the pervasive phone hacking culture at the News of the World, and pressuring the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to clear the purchase of the 61% of BSkyB that he doesn't already own.
What a contrast between now and then. In January 1986 months of meticulous planning by Murdoch, and a group of his executives sworn to secrecy, had seen the installation of new presses, the recruitment of scab EEPTU workers to run them, the installation of ATEX direct-input computer systems to eliminate the traditional hot metal print production, and the creation of Fortress Wapping with razor wire, video cameras and squads of security guards.
To distribute the papers in June 1985, Murdoch signed a £7.5 million contract with TNT for a fleet of vehicles, staff and administration to avoid the threat of newspaper distribution being disrupted through solidarity action by railway workers.
Murdoch had planned everything, even down to the most expedient and cost-saving way of getting rid of the printers. Advice from his highly-paid lawyer, Geoffrey Richards of Farrer and Co, was: 'If the moment came when it was necessary to dispense with the present workforce...the cheapest way of doing it would be to dismiss employees while participating in a strike or other industrial action'.
In a final piece of duplicity, Murdoch threw a smokescreen around his major investment at Wapping - it was to produce a new twenty-four hour paper, the London Post. It was a fiction which kept the unions negotiating until the final move to Wapping. Finally all the chapels voted for strike action and on 25 January 1986 the bitter, year-long dispute began.
However, Murdoch could not produce the papers without the journalists. Intense pressure and inducements of a £2000 pay rise, free health care and a swimming pool (it never materialised) led to the bulk of the journalists moving to Wapping. Only a group of about 60 'refusenik' journalists did not cross the picket line.
Of course Murdoch could not have done this on his own. Thatcher's assault on the unions, after the end of the miners' strike in March 1985, was remorseless. Anti-trade union laws led to the National Graphical Association being fined £25,000 for defying an injunction and the sequestration of SOGAT's £17 million assets.
Any attempts at solidarity action by trade unionists not involved in the dispute was penalised. The Metropolitan Police was savage in the treatment of those who turned out to support the sacked print workers, and also of the people who lived in the local community. The cost of the police operation was £5.2 million.
For Murdoch Wapping was part of a bigger picture. Before Wapping, Murdoch's UK newspapers contributed 45% of the profits of Murdoch's media group. It was an extremely profitable operation because when Murdoch acquired the dying Sun in 1969 he won major concessions on manning levels from the print unions.
A year after the end of the strike his UK profits were up a staggering 85%. The Wapping profits funded Murdoch's breakneck expansion in the USA where he acquired the film company 20th Century Fox and Metromedia, America's largest independent television network.
Later in the 1980s he launched Sky satellite broadcasting in the UK. Wapping was the goose that laid the golden egg, or rather funded the expansion of News Corporation into one of the top five global media groups.
But 25 years later Murdoch’s best-laid plans are being disrupted.
In June 2010, after the Conservative-led coalition was installed, Murdoch went in through the back door at No 10. He was one of the first visitors to see David Cameron and we can assume that it was to tell him that he planned to acquire full control of BSkyB.
When this news became public, media commentators thought it would be nodded through. However, a broad-based campaign against the takeover has had notable victories. There was a public interest inquiry into the takeover by Ofcom. The media regulator was flooded with responses, the vast majority arguing against the takeover. BSkyB sought to rubbish the report Ofcom produced, arrogantly suggesting third-party respondents were given too much weight in the recommendation by Ofcom, which recommended that the Competition Commission should conduct a further investigation.
Jeremy Hunt is desperately wriggling to find a way to clear the deal. Instead of referring the matter to the Competition Commission he is now involved in behind-the-scenes bargaining with Murdoch to seek remedies or undertakings from Murdoch so that the deal can be cleared.
Hunt should heed the words of an Australian editor, sacked two years ago: ‘News Corp is a company only interested in outcomes...And it will pretty much do or say whatever it takes to achieve its ends’.
The phone-hacking scandal also reveals the dark side to Rupert Murdoch’s media power, and how it penetrates into politics, the Metropolitan Police and pretty much every nook and cranny of public life. The chilling effect of a media company which is too large and powerful to upset was vividly demonstrated by the Commons Culture Committee probing the Coulson affair.
The committee deferred when Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of News International, refused a formal request to appear before it. MPs on the same committee confessed they pulled their punches in the investigation out of fear that journalists would begin to trawl through their personal lives.
BSkyB has just announced a surge of 26% in revenues over the past six months to £3.19 billion. This means that the annual revenue of BSkyB is equivalent to the combined revenue of the BBC, ITV, C4 and Channel 5.
What we are facing in the UK is a transformative moment in terms of media ownership. News Corporation’s acquisition of BSkyB will create the media equivalent of a black hole whose sheer power can distort, damage or destroy other media.
We must do all we can to ensure it doesn’t happen.
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