10 March 2020, The Tablet

Catholic Herald in dispute with diocese over rent

The Herald is this Friday leaving the offices north of the City that it has occupied for 40 years.

Catholic Herald in dispute with diocese over rent

A recent Catholic Herald cover
The Tablet

The Catholic Herald is moving out of its offices in London in a dispute with the Westminster diocese over claims of unpaid rent and dilapidated working conditions. 

The 132-year-old weekly, which changed its format from newspaper to magazine in 2014 and has a circulation of about 15,000 in subscriptions and distributions to Catholic parishes, has for the past four decades leased an office just outside the City of London from the St Mary Moorfields Trust, a diocesan charity. 

The Financial Times reported that the diocese has demanded nearly £280,000 from the Herald, including £33,000 in several years of unpaid rent and the rest outstanding for “dilapidations for the property from the time the tenants had responsibility for the whole site”. 

The Herald was until last year owned by Sir Rocco Forte and Lord Black of Crossharbour, when Black sold his 47.5 per cent holdings to the former Conservative MP Brooks Newmark and the award-winning publisher William Cash. Cash, who is chairman of the Herald and writes regular columns for the magazine, told The Tablet: "This is a long running issue with the Westminster diocese. We are currently paying over £10,000 a month, including a payment plan for arrears, for a dingy five-floor walk-up that looks like a Soviet airline waiting room from the 1960s."
He said the dispute over the lease originated years ago under a completely different management and board at the Herald when Damian Thompson, who recently left the company, was editorial director. However, Thompson later described Cash's statement about the lease as a "bizarre and sneaky non-sequitur" and tweeted: "The implication that I was even remotely connected to the rental dispute is ridiculous."* 
Cash said: "The Herald has paid the diocese hundreds of thousands of pounds in rent over the last 25 years, for an office that has been impossible to work out of for two years due to being in the middle of a noisy and chaotic building site." He described the rent as "outrageously expensive, more akin to a City merchant bank or global law firm". 
He said the diocese failed to invoice the Herald for three years, from 2015-2018, despite repeated requests from the magazine’s accounting to do so, and that the Herald was unable to pay without an invoice. 
"Then, after the Herald demanded an invoice, the Herald was presented with a bill of £160,000," said Cash, adding that the Herald had paid off around £130,000 of the arrears, by paying the monthly rent of £6,200 plus arrears payments, and would clear the back rent by November this year.
On the dilapidations front, he said the Herald's lawyer believes the lease document is not "fit for purpose". The Herald has obtained two quotes from building firms, both at around £150,000 to £160,000 plus VAT. The Herald has offered the diocese £125,000, partly due to the fact that the lease has many legal uncertainties to it, and secondly,  Cash said, "because we have been trying to work in a noisy and chaotic building site for the last two years with appalling levels of construction noise. Many staff were unable to come in to work the 'construction noise pollution' was so bad."
According to the Financial Times, the £125,000 offer was rejected by the Church as “below the quotes received to put the property back into repair, which is [the Herald’s] responsibility under the terms of lease”.

The Herald, whose accounts record a loss of £124,000 in 2017 and whose owners have guaranteed its debts, is due to move into a townhouse in Victoria this Friday.

The diocese of Westminster said: "‘This is not a long-running dispute. It is a discussion with a long-term tenant, who indicated they were leaving, on their responsibilities under the lease. The rules of the Charity Commission require us to ensure proper stewardship and administration of our assets, including rental properties. The lease with the Catholic Herald reflected this, with the rent being commensurate for equivalent properties on the edge of the City, where these offices are located. We are working with them to help them with the transition to their new offices. We wish them continued success during this time of transition.’

Last week, the distinguished Catholic journalist Luke Coppen, 44, editor of the Herald since 2004, announced that he was leaving at the end of March to become Europe editor of the Catholic News Agency.

Dan Hitchens has been appointed editor in his place.

Hitchens, 31, who joined the Herald as deputy editor in 2016, said: “It’s an honour and an exciting challenge. During Luke Coppen’s brilliant editorship, both Catholics and non-Catholics have come to rely on the Herald as a magazine which combines first-rate journalism with a real love for the Church. We’re hoping to build on that, publishing the best, most entertaining writing and telling the stories that matter from around the world.”

Coppen said: “I congratulate Dan on his appointment as editor. He is a deep thinker with a profound faith who will ensure that the Herald continues to fulfil its unique mission in the media world.”


*Thompson comment inserted on 12 March.


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