Murdoch scandal rooted in union-busting

August 5, 2011

Nineteen-year-old Michael Delaney died after being run over by a truck in east London on a Saturday night in January 1987.

An inquest jury found that he had been a victim of unlawful killing. But nobody has ever been prosecuted.

Delaney had been among trade unionists picketing the Rupert Murdoch-owned News International plant at Wapping against the sacking of more than 5000 workers and the de-recognition of unions.

The dispute lasted almost a year. The Metropolitan Police worked in coordination with News International executives throughout. Police attacks on the picket lines were a regular occurrence.

Saturday nights — when it was vital for the company to ensure that its prize asset, the News of the World, reached the shops — involved particularly brutal confrontations.

In at least one instance, mounted police cavalry-charged directly into the pickets to clear a path for truckloads of copies of the NOTW.

Anyone wondering how the Murdochs and the Met developed a relationship so close it eventually became scandalous — that’s how.

Anyone wondering how the “newsroom culture” which facilitated phone hacking developed — here’s how.

Murdoch’s line at the time was that the print unions had been destroying the newspaper industry through overstaffing, signing in “ghost workers”, falsely claiming for overtime and general skiving.

Thus the need for a midnight flit from the company’s King’s Cross office to purpose-built premises at Wapping to produce papers with non-union labour.

The dodgy activities of some print workers were of little importance to Murdoch. What irked him was union organisation, specifically, the print unions’ ability to defend members.

Getting rid of a bolshie father or mother of chapel (shop steward) was no easy matter. But the myth of Murdoch saving the industry from union malpractice has persisted.

The day the move to Wapping was announced, journalists met in the King’s Cross newsroom.

“Refusniks” argued that journalists’ rights and standards would be shredded if they collaborated with management in destroying the printers’ organisation.

Others maintained the printers brought their problems on themselves.

The key speech came from Sunday Times editor Andrew Neill who made an impassioned plea for journalists to save the papers. The Wapping move was a done deal: if the journalists didn’t go along, the papers would collapse.

Neill has been among those commenting on the current debacle who have been anxious to make the point that, say what you like about Murdoch, he did save the newspaper industry back in the 1980s.

I suppose he can hardly say anything else.

Journalists discovered as they walked into Wapping that, individually, they too were now on their own.

One story from the last fortnight has been of sports reporter Matt Driscoll, sacked in 1987 while on sick leave for depression arising from humiliation heaped on him by the then-editor Andy Coulson.

An employment tribunal heard how representatives of News International visited him at home while he was ill in a way which deepened his anxiety.

That would not have happened if the newsroom had been unionised.

Reporter Charles Begley has recalled being ordered to dress up as Harry Potter for a conference at the NOTW in 2001 — the paper wanted to capitalise on the boy wizard’s commercial potential.

Begley’s humiliation was excruciating.

That wouldn’t have happened either in a unionised newsroom.

Former NOTW showbiz reporter and whistleblower Sean Hoare, who died on July 17, described for Panorama the pattern of bullying and the relentless demand for exclusives no matter how they’d been obtained.

He had had nobody on the paper to turn to — which wouldn’t have been the case in a unionised workplace.

The absence of any organised expression of the distinct interests and concerns of journalists meant management priorities could be imposed at will.

Journalists were hired on short-term contracts, typically for a year or six months. There was no need for any sacking procedure.

Anyone who didn’t prove as malleable as the Murdochs, Brooks and Coulsons demanded would be cast adrift when their contract expired.

The result was, as phone-hacker Glenn Mulcaire has put it, “fear all the time”.

That wouldn’t have happened if the National Union of Journalists had been on hand.

The assault on the right to union representation has been central to the development of the ethos that generated the scandal.

The reason this aspect hasn’t been front and centre in coverage is that to acknowledge the necessity of trade unionism would be to take discussion of the issues which arise down a path where, even today, few want to go.

[This article first appeared in the Belfast Telegraph.]

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