The very curious demise of a less than Cornish newspaper

I strolled into my local shop the other day and whilst there standing in the queue waiting to purchase a pint of milk, my eyes were drawn to the large pile of last week’s ‘West Britons’ tied up into a bundle and stacked in a rather undignified manner just inside the main entrance. These piles of dirty and dejected papers seem to be increasing down the months. I can only assume that as they are no longer deemed suitable as fish and chip wrapping material, they are sent for recycling somewhere.

Now, for those of you not in the know, the ‘West Briton’ is a newspaper sold in mid Cornwall and part of a little group of sister publications variously called ‘The Cornishman’, ‘The Cornish Guardian’ and the ‘Western Morning News’ (locally referred to as ‘The Festering Boring News’ and it really is flimsy and a bit that way).

The old ‘West Briton’ has been around for a long time, since 1810 and is published on Thursdays.
Quite naturally, ownership of the paper has changed many times down the years and it was very dubiously part of the right wing Daily Mail group in the 1930’s, when the then owner, Lord Rothermere was openly sympathetic to the British Union of Fascists and its Blackshirt leader, Oswald Mosely. Referring to Adolf Hitler’s proposed invasion of Czechoslovakia, Rothermere whose real name was actually Harmsworth, writing in the Daily Mail, said in 1938 that “Czechs were of no concern to Englishmen”. So much for the Daily Mail then and as we can see from its current editorial and political stance, nothing much has changed in this so called ‘Daily Stale’ paper, much loved by Little Englanders, UKIP supporters and those who still think there is a British Empire.

Now being owned by ‘Local World’ since 2012, actually a branch of the Daily Mail and General Trust and who are really anything but local with their headquarters in London, there is still a hint of right wing bias to be detected in the ‘West Briton’ and I have heard several refer to it as ‘The West England’ and so on. Actually, not that the proprietors would ever be bright enough to realise, but the term ‘West Briton’ is fairly pejorative in parts of Ireland. I don’t expect that that would much bother the current owners though. Indeed, they would probably get some sort of Unionist and Imperialist kick from the fact.

Matters have not been going well for the dear old ‘Briton’ as print media slowly retreats in the face of assault by dynamic on line media and the constant proliferation of citizen journalists. It is probably a case of all the second rate degrees being doled out for so called ‘Media Studies’ and a lack of real jobs in the media industry which is to blame. Weekly circulation of the old thing was 30,700 as of August 2012 down 1,687 copies, or 5.2% when compared to figures for March of the same year. Judging by the ever increasing and rather forlorn bundles by shop doorways, matters have steadily worsened.

Grasping as a drowning man for a straw, or should I say in this case, a struggling Truro office chair based editor grasping for a story, any story, the ‘West Briton’ has an online internet version, perhaps a desperate attempt to move into the 21st century from its 19th century beginnings. This on line version received something of a ‘wash and brush up’ recently, when what was known as ‘This is Cornwall’ (again anything but actually, but that’s another story) divided into individual websites supposedly meant to represent the geographical identities of the paper and its sisters. Now the online version is quite simply known as ‘West Briton’ and contains edited versions of articles which appear in the weekly printed edition.

Just like the print version, the better part is made up of advertising, some of which is cunningly set as a trap to spring out from the screen at the reader. There you are, reading some third hand report from the local court probably lifted straight off the court register when ‘bang’, suddenly an advert flares up usually accompanied by outlandish music urging one to buy the latest computer based game of mass destruction.

In an attempt at interaction with their readers, the West Briton has also adopted a tactic used in the on line Daily Mail in a weak attempt to emulate its distant and bigger relative and allows individuals to post underneath the on line article and then, again as is the case with the Mail, allows a scoring system, with a green finger up meaning best rated and a red finger down meaning least rated. Leaving aside the fact that this facility allows for individuals with time on their hands to flag up the frequent spelling and grammatical howlers made by the staff often with much resultant hilarity (obviously the West Briton is so financially strapped, it can’t even afford a dictionary, yet alone a spell checker) it also encourages a phenomenon known as ‘trolls’ to gather at the site a little like flies are drawn to a cow’s rear hind quarters.

A whole field of battle is opened up with some individuals posting from far away and outside Cornwall seizing the opportunity, encouraged by the West Briton, to take a swing at anything remotely Cornish. These ‘trolls’, some quite bizarrely named, are drawn in by the West Briton’s limited and lacklustre use of stock photographs and usually a variation of the St. Piran’s flag, posted up to accompany an article and acting as a signal, some would even say, a red rag to a peculiar right wing bull.

And so we see the likes of ‘rickoon’ ‘parsnippasty’ and even stranger characters who hide behind these names ‘own’ the website and post vitriol with virtual impunity.

The ‘West Briton’ favours posters from the political right and targets posters who choose to make postings with counter arguments. Similarly, the ‘West Briton’ has caused huge upset to one family by persisting in posting a stock photograph showing their beloved late husband, father and grandfather waving a St. Piran’s flag. Despite several messages to the on line editors, the arrogance is maintained and the photograph continues to appear.

But with its own message to promote, all local concerns are cast to one side by the paper and any poster with a pro Cornish point of view is banned should they step out of line.

The favoured few, sad that they are, also employ a system known as ‘cookie washing’ in order to allow them to multiple vote on their opponents postings and it is not uncommon to see red fingers down literally move in front of one’s eyes. I spoke with a computer savvy young friend of mine and he demonstrated just how easy it was to ‘cookie wash’ and apparently many modern browsers come equipped with this facility.

With the postings of those with leanings towards the extremes, UKIP and the like being favoured the paper which then translates these postings into print and uses them in its weekly publication. A true case of a newspaper making its own news – or as one retired hack told me as he shook his head in shame at the direction of his past profession, of ‘spotty, young, desk bound journalists being too idle to go and report on real stories’.

So, having seen how the newspaper shows favoritism towards the political right and how it carefully erases dissention, of how it flags articles suitable for often outrageous ‘anti’ postings by using the same tired stock photographs and then translates this into print, let us now examine another creation, the ‘West Briton’ on line opinion poll.

The opinion poll started off as a means to have on line readers interact with the page. Someone told me that the numerous advertisers which overwhelm the website pay for every click on the site. I am not sure whether that is true, but if so, they are being conned. The questions are usually fairly simple and require a tick in a ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘don’t know’ box. The result then appears as a percentage score and in a desperate attempt by the editorial staff to create news and fill column inches, the results are usually included in the print edition each week. But wait for this! As the ‘trolls’ engineer the ratings on the postings, they also fiddle the results on the polls. The poor gullible ‘Briton’ staff then proudly publish these as though they were properly taken opinion polls. In fact, they have all the authority of an election in some African country or, dare I say, the recent Scottish Referendum!

I have watched these opinion polls literally move in front my eyes at the hands of the ‘cookie washers’ and despite emailing the paper, nothing is done. Once these polls are published in the paper, can you begin to imagine how they actually affect readers’ opinions thus leading many to suspect that there is a hidden and rather right wing agenda?

I will give you an example. Firstly, take into account the paper’s absolute infatuation with a Cornish assembly, or rather nefariously campaigning against one. Now, on 28th August, 2014, this question was posed: ‘Do youthink Cornwall should be granted more powers to govern its own affairs through a Cornish Assembly?’

Requiring a simple yes, no or don’t know answer, I watched whilst the vote for yes increased slowly over a few days then suddenly, probably at the hands of ‘rickoon’ ‘parsnippasty’ or some other Anglocentric nutcase, watched as a ‘cookie wash’ went into action and within minutes, the vote for yes had reversed dramatically to one for no. At this time the vote on that little question stands at 45% Yes, 55% No and 5% Don’t Know. Yes, I know that adds up to 105% but don’t expect any explanation from the ‘West Briton’ because they probably won’t know themselves!

Presumably, when this was spotted and published, a decision was made two weeks later to re run approximately the same question in the hope of a more acceptable answer to the Cornwall denying ‘West England’ staff and supporters club. In the intervening week, there was some piffle of a poll about the tooth fairy then a similar question was posed: ‘Should Cornwall get a new Cornish Assembly?’ Not much different than the one a fortnight earlier, is it? Leaving aside the fact that Cornwall never had an ‘old’ Assembly and who else but Cornwall would want a ‘Cornish’ Assembly, certainly not Manchester or Liverpool or a myriad of other places, the results were startling. Again, I watched as the yes vote slowly advanced upwards, then suddenly, off go the trolls and up goes the no vote in a matter of an hour. My, my, their ‘cookie washers’ were working overtime! Then, with all the solemnity of a ‘YouGov’ or ‘Mori’ poll, the ‘Briton’ publishes this result, again giving completely the wrong impression and again, influencing public opinion. The no vote has it with yes standing at one time at a mere 5%.

Now, much of this is down to ignorance on the part of the staff at the paper. However, finally and perhaps rather more sinister, a word of warning to those who write letters to the editor for publication. After they have appeared in the print edition, they are reproduced in the on line version. But look out for three and sometimes four letters placed together on one webpage and the whole lot attributed to one letter writer. An author of one letter can literally end up being named as the creator of letters he or she did not compose! Rather dangerous but don’t expect the ‘Briton’ to care. They don’t care enough to premoderate many of the scandalous and often litigious postings under their articles until it is too late and the damage is done and so they certainly won’t care about lumping a few letters together under one name.

And so, on goes the ‘West Briton’, misinforming, causing deliberate lies to be believed and stamping across people’s reputations without a care in the world. A corporate lizard in a world of corporate dinosaurs slowly heading towards ultimate extinction. The current cost of the thing is £1.10 and once you have shaken out the advertising sections, cars and estate agents, you are left with about ten pence worth of real news and that picked up second or third hand from the internet.

My advice is to resist the urge to buy it, to leave it languishing in the pile in the barber shop or by the newsagent’s door which is probably the best place for it!

T. Harold Graham
9 October, 2014
(Written for another magazine and of course, sent to the ‘West England’)