The News Corp. version is that much patience went into negotiating, but the unions took no serious interest, and recklessly called a strike at the old plant. Murdoch then dismissed the whole workforce and immediately shifted production to the new plant, with a new workforce, which he had trained and ready. The dismissed workers tried to blockade the new plant and a huge police presence was deployed against them. The Battle of Wapping devolved into ugly street violence, in which the printers eventually suffered total defeat.
The Wyatt Diaries again provide the insider’s account, detracting somewhat from notions of forbearance meeting simple recalcitrance. Wyatt states bluntly that Murdoch wanted the unions to strike—so that their members could be fired. Negotiations over the reduction and replacement of a long-serving and still active work force could only end with large compensation payments, which would imperil the prospects of paying off the Milken “shareholders” (actually creditors). Wyatt makes very plain the high-noon mood within News Corp.—and also explains its link to an unexpected, simultaneous and desperate crisis within the Thatcher government.
The dominance over British media planned by Thatcher’s “people” was, by 1986, prospering greatly under Bernard Ingham, her chief spin-doctor. The four News Corp. papers—to the disgust of some staff members—fed from Ingham’s hand. The Mail and Telegraph groups, though less subservient, shared the government’s ideological outlook (and Telegraph tradition shuns the investigative mode). The Guardian, and its Sunday companion the Observer, raised questions—for instance, about the business interests of the Prime Minister’s son—but with the press mostly on his side, Ingham could make them feel lonely indeed.
Then, as Wapping’s battle raged, a constitutional crisis exploded in the Cabinet, sparked by overly loyal Sun participation in quarrels over a defense contractor, Westland Helicopters.
One of the few certainties in a story that remains opaque today is that the Thatcher administration came near death. On the afternoon of January 24, Thatcher told colleagues that by 6p.m. she might not be Prime Minister. We can’t follow here the whole serpentine plot, but a remarkable point is that the Sunday Times, the nation’s strongest investigative paper, declared the story was one for ‘the so-what files’: a contretemps which once would have been calmed by ministers refreshing themselves in a Continental spa. Only the Observer made substantial investigations; its reporters had the novel experience of tackling a national crisis without hot competition from the Sunday Times.
The politico-financial question was whether Sikorsky of the U.S. should acquire Britain’s sole builder of military helicopters. The Observer was able to establish that false and price-sensitive matter published in the Sun—and helpful to Sikorsky because it undermined investor confidence in Westland—had leaked from Thatcher’s office. The constitutional questions were first, the degree of Prime Ministerial responsibility for unlawful disinformation, and second, how the matter should be officially investigated. While Westland’s shares oscillated, the Observer investigated.
As to seriousness, Murdoch privately agreed with the Observer— “It’s looking very bad,” he told Wyatt, according to the diaries. But he had no similar intent to enlighten the public. “We’ve got to get her out of this somehow,” Murdoch said.
Best, he thought, would be other investors jumping in to help Sikorsky swiftly gain control. With trading greatly diminished once Sikorsky had that control, and publicity reduced, the government might fend off the pressure for an inquiry. The Observer discovered that such a strategy existed, but could only suspect that Murdoch was among those seeking secretly to promote it. Today we have the confirmation from Wyatt—though he gives no details of investments and does not suggest Murdoch made any himself.
Nothing, in fact, suggests Murdoch acted illegally, but Wyatt’s account shows that amid a national crisis over false government leaks that undermined a British company’s share price—the Defense Secretary, Michael Heseltine, resigned in protest—the grand aim of the Britain’s greatest media boss was to insulate the government against investigation (“We’ve got to get her out of this somehow.”)