LONDON (Reuters) - For Jack Robertson, a protester outside News International’s headquarters in east London angered by the phone hacking scandal, the parallels with 25 years ago were not lost.
The retired freelance journalist recalled how thousands of demonstrators clashed with police at the very same site in Wapping in 1986 after News International’s owner Rupert Murdoch moved to curb the power of the printers’ unions.
On a wet and windy Friday, barely 50 people turned out to vent their ire at the Australian-American press baron and his company, a paltry turnout given how the hacking story has dominated headlines in recent days.
Murdoch and some of his most senior executives are under fire following the sudden closure of his popular weekly tabloid News of the World amid allegations of widespread hacking into voicemails in search of scoops.
“All of this could have been predicted 25 years ago, when Murdoch was allowed to get his hands on the British media by Margaret Thatcher,” said Robertson, part of a small crowd comfortably outnumbered by the press.
As it is today, Murdoch’s relationship with the Conservative party came under scrutiny in 1986 after he moved his newspaper operations from Fleet Street to Wapping and introduced electronic production techniques requiring fewer printing staff.
By effectively dismissing thousands of workers and bringing in outsiders to keep the printers running, he dealt a major blow to the trade union movement just a year after the bitter miners’ dispute had ended.
“It was seen as a huge act of betrayal at the time by those 6,000 workers, and in the same cynical way this week we’ve seen Murdoch shed hundreds of jobs at News of the World in a ruthless attempt to salvage the reputation of News International,” said Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ).
“It’s the shocking and dramatic nature of it as well,” she told Reuters. “The Wapping dispute pulled a rug from under everybody’s feet, and this is drawing a lot of parallels in terms of people’s memories and feelings.”
During Thatcher’s reign, Murdoch’s newspapers were generally supportive of the government, and the ignominious collapse of the print unions’ strike in 1987 was in keeping with the leader’s own desire to curb the power of the labour movement.
A quarter of a century later, and Prime Minister David Cameron is battling to distance himself from Murdoch and his media empire.
Cameron’s former spokesman Andy Coulson, who was editor at News of the World before joining the prime minister’s team, was arrested on Friday on suspicion of conspiring in the practice of phone hacking.
Cameron is also a friend and neighbour of Rebekah Brooks, a top executive and confidante of Murdoch who was News of the World editor before Coulson and who is under increasing pressure to resign.
“People at the top should carry the can for what has happened over the last five to ten years,” said 41-year-old care worker Jim Edwards. “It’s a culling exercise while people at the top get away scot-free.”
Behind him, demonstrators chanted “Brooks Must Go!” and “Rupert Murdoch get out, we know what you’re about, money, power, lies by the hour!”
The prime minister, officially backed by Murdoch’s Sun tabloid since 2009, said Brooks should have resigned herself, after closing down the newspaper at a cost of 200 jobs.
Staff members at News of the World were in sombre mood on Friday, two days before the final edition of Britain’s bestselling Sunday newspaper hit the stands.
“There is naturally a lot of frustration at the paper being closed down, frustration that we’re being made to pay the price for what other people have done in the past,” political editor Ian Kirby told Reuters outside the newsroom offices.
For the NUJ, the closure of News of the World appeared to be a ploy to ensure Murdoch secured government approval to buy his long-term acquisition target BSkyB, the pay-TV group.
“It’s absolutely critical he’s not allowed to get away with this (deal),” said Stanistreet.
“Until the full extent of the criminal investigation is known ... it’s imperative the government halts any decision.
“This whole issue of whether or not he’s fit and proper to be at the helm of such a large chunk of the UK’s media space needs to be settled.”
Reporting by Mike Collett-White; editing by Janet McBride