However undesirable the News of the World may have become, we still owe Murdoch a debt of gratitude for Wapping

Rupert Murdoch holds copies of the Sun and the Times at his new print works in Wapping in 1986 (PA photo)

Toby Young, in this week’s Spectator, relates that Paul Staines (the well-known Tory blogger Guido Fawkes) said to him at last week’s Spectator party, “I gave up defending anything years ago. You only get attacked for it.” They were talking about Young’s expectation that he would suffer for defending Rupert Murdoch as he has done over recent weeks and proceeded to do again in the Spectator article which followed.

Of Young’s defence more presently; at this point I will simply say that I agree with every word of it: indeed, my wife, drawing my attention to his piece, said that Young must have been hacking our phone: “He’s quoted you more or less verbatim” (the bit about hacking our phone was a joke). I, too, think that it’s about time we got things into perspective by remembering what we all owe Murdoch, as well as the dangers our indebtedness has over the years brought in terms of his growing and now excessive political influence (hugely inflated by the eager subservience of Tony Blair).

There is, of course, much to be said against the whole Murdoch phenomenon as it has come to operate over recent years, and most of it has been obsessively rehearsed by his enemies, who have whipped up the British public into (to quote Macaulay) “one of its periodical fits of morality”, than which, he said, “we know no spectacle so ridiculous”. But this isn’t simply ridiculous: it’s sinister – this isn’t just the public in a fit of morality: it’s the public whipped up into a lynch mob, the public in a fit not just of morality but of vengeful frenzy, in which nothing will satisfy the tricoteuses but the heads of all concerned, and the driving out of Murdoch himself from anything to do with our media. Already, there is talk by little Miliband – who is relishing his big moment (let him; it won’t last) – of the “dismantling” of the Murdoch “empire”: you’d think it was the Congress of Vienna, with Murdoch expelled to Elba, and the country at last emerging from a Murdoch-inspired political servitude into a new golden age.

Well, before I go any further, and for the sake of balance, let me quote a journalist I respect, Charles Moore, hardly a bloodstained Jacobin, on the death of the News of the World. I have stated my own view that the death of the New of the World, despite the fact that I myself woudn’t have it in the house, was a tragic event (as the death of any newspaper always is): in the same issue of the Spectator as Toby Young’s defence, Charles Moore expresses his own view on the death of the News of the World, in words which I have to admit are difficult to argue against, words which will no doubt resonate with many of my readers:

Before we leave the subject of the News of the World, I must take issue with the idea that its closure is necessarily a loss to the cause of a free press (however sad it may be for its staff). For as long as I can remember – which is roughly since Rupert Murdoch bought it in 1969 – the News of the World has been one of the most lowering features of British life… it is certain that the paper’s main purpose was pornographic. Nor, for the most part, was it good honest pornography – pretty, topless women smiling gamely out at the poor lonely men who bought it. Its pornography was of the much more sinister kind which uses disapproval as a cover for filth and mistakes the kinky desire to punish others as a symptom of morality. It was never more revolting than when campaigning against paedophiles. In the paper’s farewell edition last Sunday, almost its proudest boast was how it had fought for “Sarah’s Law” to establish “the crucial right of parents to information about paedophiles living in their area”. This campaign was, in effect, an incitement to mob violence… Looking through all the old Murdoch-era front pages which the paper displayed last Sunday, I could find no exclusive … which really did any good… All my adult life, whenever I have been to a newsagent or garage on a Sunday, I have been depressed by the view of life screaming from the News of the World headlines visible there. Words like “rat”, “cheat”, “shame”, “beast”, “scum” reflect an utterly miserable picture of human existence. It is not a sufficient defence to say that most of those depicted were indeed rats, cheats etc. We are taught “hate the sin and love the sinner”. Papers like the News of the World reverse this. They have no abhorrence of sin at all, but they hate sinners – in other words, the whole human race – and persecute their chosen victims with the implacable cruelty which always lies behind populism and sentimentality… Defenders of such papers always say how “robustly” they advance the cause of the many against the few, but in fact they have retarded it. They do their best to create what Marxists call “false consciousness” among the many, while their owners and bosses establish collusive relationships with the powerful. This problem goes much wider than the News of the World, of course, but its closure is at least a start. To sum it all up in a red-top headline; “good bloody riddance”.

Well, it’s a view that has to be given its full weight. But I still say that, on balance, Murdoch’s contribution to our national life has been overwhelmingly positive rather than negative. He didn’t just save the Times newspaper (still one of the great newspapers of the world, which he has supported through the years despite the fact that it has never in all that time made a profit, and which if Murdoch is driven out of this country will undoubtedly go under).

What he did was to liberate our newspapers from the tyranny of the print unions, which not only stood in the way of the new technology – which, thanks to Murdoch, was enabled to revolutionise the print media –but actually influenced the content of the papers themselves: there were actually occasions in the early 80s when if some print union shop steward didn’t like what the Telegraph wanted to say on some political issue (I was writing for the Telegraph at the time; I know that this is true) would threaten to stop publication of the entire issue unless the piece in question was rewritten or suppressed.

Murdoch’s victory in the great Wapping strike, and the resulting destruction of the influence of the print unions, was a victory for us all, and a final and complete excision of a cancerous tumour on the body politic. The effect of Murdoch’s triumph on the newspaper industry was wholly benign. This is how Toby Young describes its results: “Murdoch has been a force for good in our industry. Not only has he subsidised the Times, keeping it afloat in spite of its losses, but he broke the back of the British print unions and in doing so provided the newspaper business with a new lease of life. Had he not challenged the unions’ restrictive practices, the Independent and Independent on Sunday might never have been launched and it’s doubtful the Guardian and Observer would have survived until now. The Scott Trust is struggling to contain annual losses of tens of millions of pounds as it is. If Wapping hadn’t happened, the losses would be even greater.”

The extent of restrictive practices on British industry and therefore on our entire national life can hardly be imagined today by someone not old enough to have lived through them. In the newspaper industry their effect was dramatic. This is how Andrew Neil, former editor of the Sunday Times (for whom, some years later, I at one time wrote regularly), remembers it:

“Before Wapping,” I explained recently to a group of young journalists, “if any of you had done this” – I pressed a letter at random on the computer keyboard – “the print workers would immediately have walked off the job and the paper wouldn’t come out.”

They looked at me with a mixture of incomprehension and incredulity, not sure if I was making it up or taking them for a ride. The proposition was so ludicrous that there are times I wonder myself if it was true. But it was.

Before Wapping, one print workers’ union, the NGA (National Graphical Association) had a monopoly of the computer keyboard in the national newspaper industry. Journalists could compile their stories on old-fashioned typewriters, but only NGA members could use typesetting keyboards.

By the mid-Eighties, computer technology meant journalists could have keyed in their own material for typesetting, as they wrote their stories using computers. But computer keyboards in these days were an NGA fiefdom into which even other print union members were not allowed to intrude, never mind journalists. They guarded it much as ancient monks kept the mysteries of the quill pen hidden from plain folk behind monastery walls to preserve their monopoly on writing.

The ban on journalists using modern computer technology was far from the only absurdity in pre-Wapping newspapers. For most of the 20th century, Fleet Street had been a microcosm of all that was worst about British industry: pusillanimous management, pig-headed unions, crazy restrictive practices, endless strikes and industrial disruption, and archaic technology. If British unions were then (rightly) regarded as the worst in the western world, then Fleet Street’s print unions were the unchallenged worst of the worst.

Wapping changed all that. In the process it saved the British newspaper industry. If Fleet Street had staggered to the end of the last century with pre-Wapping, absurdly high labour costs, world-beating low productivity, antediluvian technology and the industrial relations of the madhouse, then probably only a handful of papers would have survived.

Pressures are now building up among American shareholders in News Corporation, the parent company of News International, for Rupert Murdoch to get out of the unprofitable British newspaper industry. Their efforts are being frantically and ironically (because for utterly different reasons) being paralleled by the British left, who are now after revenge for their defeat at Wapping, and want Murdoch at last to be driven Out, Out, Out. Murdoch is resisting them all.

And I, for one, fervently hope he remains resolutely opposed to the idea of his abandonment of the British newspaper industry, and beats them all again. Our whole national life will be infinitely the poorer if he does not. If he does retreat from his current level of involvement in British journalism, in 10 years’ time we will have half the number of newspapers we have now: and, for our democracy, that will be a disaster.