SPECIAL BRANCH KEPT CLOSE WATCH OF THE INDUSTRIAL DISPUTE
Nicola Cutcher, 12 January 2016
The Wapping dispute of 1986-87 was a fight to save jobs. Before the dispute, Fleet Street newspapers were typeset with hot metal and the print unions were powerful. Rupert Murdoch secretly built a system to print and distribute all of his newspapers from a new high-tech plant at Wapping. When negotiations between Murdoch and the print unions over employment conditions for the new plant broke down, nearly 6,000 workers went on strike. Murdoch immediately dismissed them. The sacked workforce arranged demonstrations and pickets to disrupt Murdoch’s business and fight for their jobs and workers rights. The industrial dispute raged for over a year.
There was a visibly huge police presence at Wapping to protect Murdoch’s property and staff to ensure that business continued as usual.
These documents reveal that the secret police effort was also substantial. Special Branch subjected the dispute to intense surveillance, producing written daily briefs on all aspects of the pickets, demonstrations, negotiations, and union meetings. They kept files on trade union leaders and had informants. They recorded details of organisations and individuals involved with the protests, and noted the contents of banners, posters and chants.
The book Undercover by Rob Evans and Paul Lewis reports that Bob Lambert, an undercover police officer deployed by the Special Demonstration Squad, a secret unit within Special Branch, was ‘often at the heart of the protests’ at Wapping, along with his activist girlfriend who was oblivious to his true identity of police spy. Lambert may have been one of a number of undercover officers spying on trade unionists and demonstrators at Wapping.
The dispute was subject to national surveillance. Notes of telephone messages from Swindon, South Wales and Kent Special Branches provide details of local coaches headed to the Wapping demonstrations.
Special Branch Registry
A Special Branch report on the 2nd May 1986 describes a May Day march and rally in solidarity with the print workers. The report lists the rally’s speakers, including union leaders and MP John Prescott, and summarises what each said. Appendix B to the report checks the names of the speakers against a column marked ‘SB(R)’ which refers to the Special Branch Registry where individual files were kept. The union leaders – Jim Knapp of the National Union of Railwaymen, Ben Rubner of the Furniture, Timber and Allied Trade Unions, and Ken Cameron of the Fire Brigades Union – all have redactions where their references would be. This suggests that they each had a file number, and hence individual files on them. Whether Special Branch held files on the MPs mentioned is more ambiguous because the reference just says MP. It doesn’t give a file number but nor does it say that there was ‘No Trace’ or only ‘Mentions’ as similar documents do elsewhere.
Special Branch feared the potential for disaffected print workers to link up with ‘extremist elements’. One report says ‘The extreme left groups were represented by roving paper-sellers for the Morning Star and Newsline and two others carrying the banner of the Brixton Young Socialists.’ Another identifies extremists as the ‘ultra left’ including ‘supporters of the Socialist Workers Party, Workers Revolutionary Party and the anarchist Class War faction.’ On that occasion the ‘extremists’ were expected to number less than 200 of around 2500 marchers.
The author of one special report is clearly sceptical about the policing strategy of senior officers and implies that their understanding of disorder at Wapping is ill-informed. He (or she) writes, ‘Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, there has been a growing belief on the part of senior uniformed officers that violence on the picket lines has been instigated by extremist elements unconnected with the unions and that the cooperation of print workers can be elicited in attempting to preserve order.’
One Special Branch Threat Assessment raised the fear that ‘militant print workers’ might join ‘forces with the now established extremist elements’. Another referred to an ‘increasingly held view that the cause is lost’ for the Wapping strikers. It added, ‘it is this sense of hopelessness which drives many of the strikers present to vent their frustration against the police’. The assessment accuses ‘factions of the left’ of exploiting the mood of the strikers by fanning ‘the sparks of violent confrontation’ for their ‘cynical propaganda purposes’, and said they receive ‘much able, and valuable, assistance from Members of Parliament.’
Special Branch spent a fair amount of time investigating a council flat being used by the SWP to organise activities against News International. Special Branch were first fed news of this flat and its tenant on the 14th March 1986 but held no records on the tenant.
This intelligence came from the Criminal Investigation Department at Leman Street. They ‘were approached by officers who, whilst off duty, were imbibing in (redacted) public house in Cable Street, E1 and overheard two Socialist Worker vendors. Apparently they mentioned (redacted) name and address as the venue for SWP members to meet, prior to joining the demonstration in the highway’. This tip-off led to at least three memos within Special Branch as the Chief Superintendent requested verification of the CID’s intelligence. Their investigations recorded the name of the woman who owned the flat, her date of birth, her employment history and the fact she was ‘currently unemployed’.
In a separate case, in April 1986 a uniformed officer who was on duty at Wapping during a demonstration reported to Special Branch that he recognised a woman amongst the crowd of pickets and said that she knew him and called him by his first name. The crowd were making noises about obtaining police numbers and home addresses. A Special Branch officer directs that there should be a ‘full enquiry’ to identify the woman and ‘establish whether she is associated with any subversive group’.
Recording the Minutiae
Surveillance of the demonstrations and pickets was painstaking, including full lists of ‘banners taking part’ and even a list of ‘chants heard during the evening marches’. These included, ‘TUC get off your knees, call a general strike’, ‘I’d rather be a picket than a scab’, and perhaps more unusually, ‘I’d rather be a cow-pat than a cop’.
Sometimes Special Branch officers recorded the most trivial details with droll humour. One May demonstration ‘had been advertised as a Welsh night and four coaches came up from Wales …Their main contribution was to provide a so-called choir to entertain and encourage the troops, but the singing was definitely not of a professional standard.’
A Special Branch report about a demonstration on the 10th May 1986 was written with a very personal flair by a detective who states upfront that he (or she) was personally present. He explains that demonstrators threw ‘a small number of thunder flashes and smoke bombs’. Apparently the only impact these made upon the lines of police ‘was to singe three inches from the tail of one of the horses’. The account continues, ‘However, (perhaps appropriately on Cup Final day) two demonstrators scored spectacular ‘own goals’ and had to be removed to hospital to receive treatment for burns’.
Of course not all intelligence provided to Special Branch proved to be accurate. On 3rd May 1986 an informant note predicted, ‘A large contingent from Glasgow will be marching from the embankment to Wapping at 19:00. Informant states that the object of the march is to take over the plant and set it on fire.’ Another note on the same day says that an informant reported that the leader of the engineers union was heard to remark ‘there is going to be 15,000 at Wapping tonight. They are going specially to do up the Special Patrol Group’.
The Special Branch papers disclosed only document the dispute up until May 1986 and already show coverage winding down a little. One memo in late May says, ‘In view of the improving situation at Wapping Special Branch have reduced physical coverage to Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday evenings only’.
Yet the demonstrations actively continued until February 1987 when the unions relented. The dismissed workers never regained their jobs, Murdoch never recognised the unions and the dispute signified the ongoing decline of trade union influence alongside the rise of Murdoch’s power.
This story is based on:
- Solomon Hughes, Special Branch spying on Wapping strike against Murdoch, Morning Star, 11 March 2011 (re-published on Hughes’ blog People’s Plain Dealer)
- Solomon Hughes, Special Branch Spied on Wapping Leaders, Morning Star, 24 April 2015
- Rob Evans and Paul Lewis, Undercover: The True Story of Britain’s Secret Police, published 2013
- News International Wapping Dispute Archive, produced by trade unions and former print workers
- Wapping: Twenty years, Twenty Voices, The Independent, 22 January 2006
- BBC On This Day – 15th February 1986 – Printers and Police Clash in Wapping
- Jon Henley, Rupert Murdoch and the battle of Wapping, The Guardian, 27 July 2011
- Rupert Murdoch, The War on Technology: 1989 Manhattan Institute Lecture
- Nic Oatridge, Photo Essay: Wapping 86
- John Lang and Graham Dodkins, Bad News: The Wapping Dispute, published 2011
- Linda Melvern, The End of the Street, published 1986