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 focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.