Mike Jempson is a former Wapping resident, writing in a personal capacity.
Michael Delaney was only 19 when he was killed, crushed beneath the wheels of a TNT lorry under police escort from Murdoch’s Wapping printworks, on the night of 10 January 1987. I had known him since he was a child.
With the launch of the Sunday Sun, Murdoch wants to put the past behind him and start afresh with pledges of ‘a new bond of trust’ with his readers and ‘the values of decency’. It is just the latest in a long line of cynical ploys by the wily old dingo. His baleful influence has blighted many lives. Right now he needs to bolster morale among staff battered by recent arrests over phone hacking and scandalised by the disclosure of their sources to the police, and to try and win friends and influence people at a time when his power seems to be on the wane.
Until recently politicians of all persuasions pandered to his every whim to win the patronage of his papers. In 1981 he had no problem persuading MPs not to refer his purchase of The Times and The Sunday Times to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, then wiped out more than 500 jobs. All his papers provided a platform for the deregulation agenda he shared with Ronald Reagan and Mrs Thatcher. He aimed his guns in particular at the BBC to help make room on the airwaves for his Sky satellite services.
Upwards of 5,000 more jobs were lost when he shifted his titles to Wapping in 1986, a move characterised by deceit, blackmail and bullyboy tactics. It began with false claims that he would print a new title The London Post there; continued with secret deals to bus in electricians from outside London to run the machinery; then blue collar staff were issued with an ultimatum - work to new inferior contracts or face the sack. Then journalists were offered £2,000 to cross picket lines and work behind the razor wire and security cameras that surrounded his new East London headquarters.
When the inevitable industrial dispute began, Murdoch boosted the fortunes of transport company TNT to deliver his titles direct to retailers, breaking up the nationwide distribution system shared by other publications and doing away with many more jobs.
While the media focussed on the pitched battles between pickets and police on the streets of Wapping, behind the scenes despair, deprivation and depression was wrecking the lives of his former workers. And when one Transport and General Workers Union driver refused to cross the picket lines The Sun tried to destroy him. Even when castigated by the Press Council, it still insisted on calling him ‘A lying trucker’.
And while the policeman in charge, Wyn Jones, whose career ended with a conviction for theft, denied that his road blocks and barricades had put Wapping residents under siege, those who lived around the plant were only too conscious that something wicked was in their midst.
The people of Liverpool were to learn that too. When almost 100 Liverpool football supporters died in the Hillsborough disaster in April 1989, The Sun proclaimed ‘The Truth. Some fans picked pockets of victims ... Some fans urinated on the brave cops … Some fans beat up PC giving kiss of life’.
It was lies. Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie ‘apologised because Rupert Murdoch told me to’ but stood by his indecent claims. Subsequent editors and the Murdochs have unreservedly apologised, but sales of his newspapers slumped in the city and Liverpool’s ‘Don’t buy The Sun’ campaign continues to this day.
Countless others have had cause to regret the prurient and sensationalist approach of Murdoch’s tabloids - they seek lowest common denominators to shock, sneer and sell wherever in the world he profiteers through the press.
Now that Murdoch is back in Britain apologising left right and centre for past transgressions, in the hope that punters and politicians alike will forgive and forget, perhaps he should show a bit of decency about that nasty incident in East London for which there has never been adequate explanation or apology.
Its victim, like Milly Dowler, is no longer able to tell Mr Murdoch what he thinks.
That night, Michael Delaney had been out with three friends celebrating his birthday of the previous week. They were on their way home, crossing the junction of Butcher Row and Commercial Road in Stepney, one of the preferred routes for Murdoch’s delivery boys. What happened next, according to the jury at an inquest in April that year, was an ‘unlawful killing’.
There was a red light at the junction and Michael tried to remonstrate with the lorry driver, but the lorry drove off dragging Michael under its wheels. The lorry would not stop again until it reached the Heston Services on the M4. Michael’s body was left lying in the road, until an ambulance took him to the London Hospital, where he died in the early hours of 11 January. Meanwhile his companions had been taken off to Leman Street Police station.
The driver, a Robert Higgins, was not called to give evidence at the inquest, but was seen by Michael’s distraught family during the lunch break, laughing and drinking in a nearby pub with one Inspector Pickard of Leman St Police Station. His co-driver did speak at the inquest and was visibly upset when he recalled that dreadful night.
Despite the inquest verdict the Director of Public Prosecutions decided not to proceed with a trial on the grounds of ‘insufficient evidence’, and the inquest verdict was quashed in the High Court a year later. The first the family heard about it was on the TV news.
Given what is now known about the unhealthily close relationships between News International and the Metropolitan Police over the years, the whole sad saga deserves a full investigation.
Sir Paul Stephenson, who resigned as head of the Met under a cloud last summer, told the Home Affairs Select Committee that almost 25% of the Met’s public affairs unit had previously worked for Murdoch papers. Former Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman, who resigned after allegations of impropriety, became a columnist for The Times, and a former News of the World editor Neil Wallis was hired by the Met as a communications consultant, at a time when questions were being asked about the full extent of phone hacking by his old paper.
Another of Stephenson’s colleagues, Assistant Commissioner John Yates, also resigned over the phone hacking scandal in July 2011. All three senior officers are still under investigation, along with about three dozen Murdoch employees, police officers and civil servants arrested as part of police investigations into aspects of the hacking scandal.
These sensational facts may never merit attention in Murdoch’s Sun but they deserve to be recalled at the Leveson Inquiry. Will Michael Delaney’s fate get a mention? Perhaps those scandalised by the cover-up over his death will ensure that Murdoch never forgets the young man who died so The Suncould hit the streets.
The big question still to be answered is whether law officers and Murdoch’s News International conspired to avoid a prosecution that might have revealed how and why Michael Delaney died.