Farewell Wapping, the Fortress of Solitude

What does the selling off of News International's HQ mean for the future of journalism?

Fortress Wapping is no more. At least, it will be no more soon, as News International seeks to sell off the site which once it had earmarked for a now-shelved campus development.

It's a move that seems like a rather poignant reflection of the state of print. Once upon a time, Wapping was something people fought over; it was the epicentre of the journalists' and printworkers' dispute of 1986, when sales of newspapers in Britain had reached their peak. Now, it's being closed down, with barely a struggle. "A readjustment of a property portfolio," says the statement, but it's hard not to think it's symbolic of more than that.

The News International brand has been poisoned by the phonehacking saga, which still echoed on yesterday, with more statements to parliament and more accusations. It's not going away any time soon, with more arrests continuing. You can't stop something from being news, once it's news; Rupert Murdoch probably knows that best of all.

While James Murdoch is feeling the heat, the aura of invincibility has gone from his father - an aura which was created at around the time when he decided to smash the unions and move to Wapping in the first place. Perhaps the departure from that site could represent the closing of a circle; perhaps it is just a cold business decision in difficult trading times -- the one-off revenues from the sale of prime land should be handsome, although you have to wonder how much greater they would have been in a property boom rather than a slump. Whatever the reason, Fortress Murdoch, Fortress Wapping, which once seemed impregnable is now being abandoned.

It's not just a change of site though. The Wapping announcement coincides with the shedding of more than 100 journalists' jobs. Those of us who've been through the business of being booted out ourselves will recognise the language: consultation; challenging economic conditions; reassessment; an extremely testing time; great confidence for the future; yadda yadda yadda. We've heard it all before, and we know what it means.

As ever with these announcements, I take no pleasure in seeing a bunch of journalists being kicked out after a lifetime in their chosen profession -- even if they did end up working for Murdoch. It's a stark reminder of the state of the industry -- when I started working a big regional daily in 2004, there were nearly 200 journalists working there; now there are 60. When you see even the likes of News International shedding jobs, using that ominous language about 'going forward' that we redundant types remember so well from Powerpoint presentations and friendly memos back at our old workplaces, you know that something is wrong. This could be more than just a little local difficulty.

There's something else: it's been nearly nine weeks since the News of the World printed its last-ever 'souvenir' edition (available now on Ebay for £5m) but the Sun hasn't started printing on a Sunday yet. It may be just around the corner; it may be some distance away. But it is going to happen -- isn't it? And if there's even the slightest possible chance that it isn't, what does that mean for the future of the industry?

The old certainties are gone: Fortress Wapping is no more; the Murdoch aura has disappeared. In their place are new certainties: journalists are going to lose their jobs. Ink is declining. And it's hard to see a time when that is going to change.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On 31 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.