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Issue #1753      October 19, 2016

The poisoning of Britain’s media

Defeat for the workers at Wapping was a big victory for the Thatcher government and strengthened Rupert Murdoch’s grip on the media, writes Zoe Streatfield.

In recent years, Rupert Murdoch and his media empire have become synonymous with the worst aspects of the industry. Everyone now knows about the phone-hacking scandal, the smearing of football fans and their families during the Hillsborough disaster, the attacks on Jeremy Corbyn and the constant barrage of Islamophobia and sexism.

Marching down Fleet Street in Wapping.

Billionaire Murdoch now owns around 170 titles worldwide, and wields power and influence in British politics far beyond what anyone would think is acceptable.

Last month, he met Prime Minister Theresa May in top secret, just as he has met previous prime ministers to set his agenda in British politics. But during the Wapping dispute in 1986 when Murdoch and Margaret Thatcher set out together to destroy an entire workforce and smash the print unions, people did not know the kind of man he was and the lengths he was prepared to go to destroy anything in the way of his quest for complete media manipulation and dominance.

Thirty years ago, workers employed at Murdoch’s four titles The Sun, News of the World, The Times and the Sunday Times were goaded into one of the most violent and bitter industrial disputes in labour movement history.

In a letter leaked to the Morning Star Murdoch was advised by the Queen’s solicitors Farrer & Co that the cheapest way to dispense with his workforce was to engineer a dispute and “dismiss employees while participating in a strike.” Murdoch did just that.

He plotted to secretly move production away from Fleet Street to a heavily guarded plant at Wapping, while at the same time a new plant was secretly developed in Kinning Park, Glasgow.

While members of the three print unions Sogat, NGA and AUEW went on an all-out strike to protect their jobs and right to union recognition, Murdoch shifted production to the secret plants and began sacking his 5,500 strong workforce.

In what has become one of the worst examples of union treachery, the plants had been staffed by workers from the electricians’ union, who were bussed through pickets to break the strike.

One honourable exception was an AUEW member who resigned after less than 48 hours at Kinning Park. As a maintenance engineer it became clear to him that he was being asked to work as a printer and that was against his trade union principles.

Much like the miners’ strike, which ended in a crushing defeat for the workers just a year before, the confrontation at Wapping and Kinning Park became a symbolic battle between workers and their employer, backed up by an aggressive anti-workers state.

And, like the miners’ strike, the defeat at Wapping represented a huge victory for the Thatcher government, her aggressive anti-union laws and the police brutality she deployed on striking workers.

During the year-long strike there were demonstrations and pickets at Wapping twice a week as well as at Kinning Park.

An eyewitness at Kinning Park remembers “a strong presence at the picket line lasted for weeks during some of the coldest winter nights.”

Barbed wire surrounded the parameter fences and mounted armoured police attacked protesters in vicious attempts to get scabs into work and newspapers out.

Thousands were arrested, many suffered horrific injuries and tragically, 19-year-old Michael Delaney was killed when he was hit by a speeding newspaper lorry leaving Wapping.

The High Court ordered the sequestration of all Sogat funds when distribution workers in London refused to handle Murdoch’s papers, and in Scotland the courts banned Sogat from threatening the distribution of News International titles north of the border. Other unions were taken to court and fined for solidarity action.

The strike collapsed in February 1987 after more than a year.

The defeat was a turning point in trade union history as other newspapers moved to terms and conditions similar to those Murdoch now imposed.

It paved the way to unfettered pollution of the mass media and public conscience by a few extremely powerful individuals that we see today.

But despite horrific police brutality, and an all-out war from Murdoch and Thatcher’s government, the strike brought people together in solidarity: many attended rallies and pickets and raised money for the striking workers.

It is vital the next generation remembers their heroic struggle.

Thirty years after the dispute, the police violence and surveillance of striking workers at Wapping and Kinning Park raise serious questions as inquiries are beginning to reveal the true scale of collaboration between the state and big business.

So far the Scottish government has shirked calls for a separate blacklisting inquiry in Scotland, but pressure is mounting on them.

Unite Scotland secretary Pat Rafferty has called for a separate inquiry into the use of undercover police during the dispute at Kinning Park.

Rafferty said: “For years, trade unionists have felt that there was something wrong with the policing at Kinning Park. Secret police files uncovered earlier this year show that Special Branch officers were spying on trade unionists involved in the dispute, and recording them as they went about lawful, peaceful protest.”

To mark the 30th anniversary of the dispute Unite Scotland is hosting an exhibition featuring graphic accounts and dramatic images of events throughout the year-long dispute. The exhibition will be held at Unite, John Smith House, 145-165 West Regent Street Glasgow, G2 4RZ, from October 3 to 28.

Morning Star

Next article – Culture & Life – “Doctors not missionaries”

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