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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser