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Freedom of the Press is for Those Who Own One

Issue: 10 Section: Features Geography: Atlantic New Brunswick Topics: media, corporate

November 10, 2003

Freedom of the Press is for Those Who Own One

The Irving Media Monopoly in New Brunswick

by Erin Steuter

irving_big.jpg
A corporate empire spanning oil speculation, refining and shipping, gas stations, food products, massive land holdings, forestry, pulp and paper, and employing one in eight New Brunswickers, the Irving group owns the province's three English-language daily newpspapers, as well as at least seven of twelve community weeklies.
Living in New Brunswick where all of the English language daily papers are owned by one company means that there is very little variety in the type of news that is available to New Brunswick readers. We face classic problems of monopoly media ownership in which homogeneity and a narrow range of opinion are common features of the news media.

For example: last month all three New Brunswick daily papers [1] ran editorials within several days of each other critiquing the government's appointment of unsuccessful provincial conservative candidates to government posts. While this editorial position may well be justified, and reflect the views of a majority of New Brunswickers, the audience nevertheless lost out on the ability to hear any another perspective on this issue. [2]

Living in New Brunswick where all of the English language daily papers are owned by a single large capitalist enterprise means that the voice of the corporate world speaks loudly and the coverage of labour focuses on confrontational and controversial events such as strikes in which labour is scapegoated. For example: this month all three papers ran editorials within several days of each other critical of the community college and prison custodians who were walking the picket line as part of a Canadian Union of Public Employees' strike. Terms such as irrational, unreasonable, ludicrous and greedy were peppered throughout the editorials revealing a pattern of Irving coverage of labour issues that typically portrays labour as the active and disruptive party. [3]

Yet living in New Brunswick where all of the English language daily papers are owned by the most powerful economic entity in the province means something else entirely. The Irving empire-which includes over 300 companies, [4] has an estimated net worth of approximately 4 billion dollars, [5] and which employs 8% of the New Brunswick labour force [6] in operations that span forestry, transportation, and construction [7] -- is not exposed to investigative journalistic inquiry in the province's daily papers. Instead critical observers of the media can easily identify the self serving nature of the Irvings' media coverage on any issue that concerns themselves. For example: In October all three Irving papers ran similar news headlines that defended their bosses from accusations of undue influence when it was revealed that they had given government ministers free plane trips and fishing junkets.

When the national media reported on the case of the current federal Industry minister Allan Rock, who made highly favourable policy decisions affecting the Irving empire after he went on a fishing trip hosted by the Irvings, [9] the national newspapers' headlines read: "Rock faces new conflict-of-interest questions"-Globe and Mail October 14, 2003, "Rock disregarded ethics ruling to advance Irvings' cause"-National Post October 20, 2003, "New questions arise over Rock, Irvings"-Toronto Star October 14, 2003. Yet a review of headlines from the New Brunswick papers reads: "Rock defends Irving trip"-Fredericton Daily Gleaner October 11, 2003 pA3, "Audit of Irving deal shows no evidence of conflict"-Saint John Telegraph-Journal October 18, 2003, pA1/A11, "No Conflict in Fishing Trip"-Moncton Times and Transcript October 11, 2003, pC3. Similarly, when it became apparent that local MP Claudette Bradshaw had also benefited from Irving trips the Irving papers covered the story with the headline: "Bradshaw free flight scandal overblown"-Moncton Times and Transcript October 23, 2003.

The adage that you don't bite the hand that feeds you, means that the readers of the New Brunswick papers are being given a very different spin on news than readers in the rest of the country. In this case, the story attracted enough national media attention that local people had access to alternative perspectives by examining the national papers. However due to the for-profit orientation of the media industry which emphasizes wire-service filler over investigative local news coverage, it is increasingly common for New Brunswick news issues to be neglected by the national media. When our own provincial papers are owned by the local mega corporation, it leaves us with limited options to gain another perspective.

Another example from October was coverage of a strike at the Irving-owned sawmill in Chipman, New Brunswick. The CBC news coverage headline was "Irving loggers protest wage cut", the story revealed the fact that the management had proposed a thirty percent wage cut and was expecting higher productivity from the workers, and the story included quotes from the workers saying that they couldn't see how they could survive on less money or produce more. Said one saw mill worker, "We're grabbing trees as quick as we can. We can't grab them any quicker" (NB CBC June 3, 2002). The CBC journalist also provided the viewer with the accurate background information that "Irving companies are well known for their tough battles with striking unions."

"The adage that you don't bite the hand that feeds you, means that the readers of the New Brunswick papers are being given a very different spin on news than readers in the rest of the country."
However, readers of the Irving papers in Saint John and Fredericton didn't get any coverage of the strike at all and those in Fredericton read the headline "Mill Workers Walk Out", learned that the workers earn up to $16.35 an hour, and were told that the issue of contention was "stalled contract negotiations." The coverage of the issue in the Irving papers failed to identify any of the context for the labour dispute and didn't reveal the proposed 30% wage cut at all. [10]

For example, when the twenty-seven month strike at Irving Oil concluded in 1996 with a humiliating defeat for the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union, the company required a process of ideological re-education which was essentially a means for the company to control the hearts and minds of its now broken labour force. Refinery workers spent two weeks at a local hotel with facilitators from an American consulting firm where they were required to go through a reorientation agenda which included "venting emotions", "problem people" and a participation in a "public declaration". Successful completion of the first week of this program was a prerequisite to being "invited" to week two, which involved "team building" exercises for union members and their former colleagues who crossed the picket lines as well as replacement workers who had been kept on. Week two in turn was followed by a practical test at the refinery lasting up to four weeks. Workers were assessed every day and did not get full pay until they passed the entire program.

Returning workers at the refinery said that in reality, the reorientation program was a combination "bitterness test" and "attitude alteration" exercise. Workers were told that they were misled by their local union and to doubt the credibility of the executives of their national union. Labour observers noted at the time that the Irvings were blacklisting the striking workers and the back to work protocol was identified as a 'brainwashing' exercise. [11]

Not surprisingly, the words 'brainwashing' and 'blacklisting' of strikers never appeared in the Irving papers' coverage of the strike. In contrast, the New Brunswick papers published the names of the 37 striking workers who were fired by the company under the headline "Not welcome at the Refinery". [12] The re-orientation was described as a "back-to-work program" that was a "tough transition" for the men who "failed" and were "told to go home". [13]

But it is interesting to note that the Irvings' coverage of the issue was paralleled in the only national newspaper at the time, the Globe and Mail. The Globe and Mail allowed the Irvings to set the agenda on the tone and coverage of the strike and its unorthodox back to work protocol and presented virtually identical coverage to the national audience. It is also interesting to note that the Globe and Mail even avoided covering traditionally newsworthy elements to the story when they followed the Irvings' lead and avoided covering New Brunswick New Democratic Party leader Elizabeth Weir's attention-getting press conference in which she suggested that the N.B. government should call in the Irving Companies' loans if they did not agree to settle the strike. Thus when the national news media fall into line with the Irvings' account of their own controversies, no one is provided with the range of opinion and perspective that is the heart of informative and independent journalism in a democratic society.

Research on the Irvings' media coverage of their own companies also reveals that the papers routinely publish their own press releases as news stories. For example this month's Saint John Telegraph Journal contains an article entitled "Refinery Hires 1,000 for Maintenance Project" [14] which is almost identical to the Irving Oil press release on that topic entitled "1,000 Tradespeople 'Turnaround' Saint John Refinery". [15]

The owners of the Irving papers have also been known to actively interfere in the papers' editorial policy. The history of the Irvings' ownership of the media is peppered with stories of journalists forbidden to name the Irvings as the ones responsible for oil spills, of Irving executives forbidden to speak to the press, and a case where the editor of the Saint John paper was denied permission to report that an Irving-owned tugboat had run aground for fear it would result in an insurance hike for the company. [16] When Neil Reynolds left the Telegraph-Journal in 1995 after a stormy reign as editor he told reporters that the paper's owner, J.K. Irving, called him every day, telling him what he liked and did not like in the paper. [17]

An incident during the 1997 federal election revealed some insight into the consequences of unsanctioned editorial action at an Irving-owned paper. In the weeks before the June 1997 federal election, the federal Liberal Party in New Brunswick was in electoral trouble. The province, like the region, was turning against the Chrétien Liberals. A few days before the vote the Telegraph-Journal took an editorial position in favour of Jean Charest's Progressive Conservatives. J. K. Irving, the eldest of the three Irving brothers responded by writing a letter, published on the front page on election day, repudiating the editorial, and arguing instead that Canada needed a majority government and that the Liberals had done a good job and deserved another term. (The Irvings, starting with their father, K. C., tended to support the Liberals, and J. K.'s son-in-law, Paul Zed [M.P.-Fundy Royal] was one of the Liberal incumbents who would go down to defeat later that day, despite J.K.'s efforts.) This case shows that when the paper's editors took a position in opposition to that of their employers they were publicly dressed-down. [18]

The papers routinely present the view that what's good for the company is good for the province. When Irving Oil maintained high production levels while replacement workers and management ran the plant during the 1994 refinery strike, the Irving-owned media heralded their accomplishment with laudatory headlines about this boon for New Brunswick's fiscal health. Yet when strikers threaten to initiate a boycott of Irving products, this was proclaimed as a dire threat to the health of the provincial economy. [19]

Finally, the Irvings' coverage of their own empire is particularly marked by a strategy of defeatism where those who oppose the company are routinely portrayed as naive, foolish and irrational in their futile effort to challenge the Irvings. Last month's coverage of the closure of the Irving-owned Saint John shipyard and the decertification of five unions reveals examples of this classic response. The Saint John Telegraph Journal's news coverage and editorial on the story was filled with phrases such as 'end of an era', 'stalemate', 'spin their wheels' and 'going nowhere fast'. The media stated that the Irving's compensation package to the union 'isn't going to get any better' and 'like it or not, we believe they hold all the cards.' [20]

A consequence of this discourse of defeatism is that the public "may begin to feel increasingly alienated and disconnected from the civic life of their communities. They may develop a sense that they are without relevant, actionable information and, therefore, powerless to control the course of their own lives." [21]

In conclusion, monopoly media in New Brunswick has resulted in a situation where we are left with generic news content in which contextualized and critical discussions of important social and economic issues that affect the lives and livelihoods of neighbours and families are addressed in a skewed and self-serving manner. The Irvings control all of the English-language daily papers in the province and now have incursions into the community papers as well, and this gives the giant corporation an unparalleled venue to promote its own interests as well as insulate itself from inquiries and criticism. It would appear that the consolidation and convergence within the monopoly media has undermined our society's formation of a free and independent press and brought us full circle back to a system where freedom of the press is for those who own one.

Dr. Erin Steuter is an associate professor of Sociology at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick. This paper was presented "Media Concentration in the 21st Century: an International, National and Provincial Phenomenon," a conference organized by the Acadian Association of Journalists. Footnotes:

1. The Irvings own all three English language daily papers in the province: Fredericton Daily Gleaner, Moncton Times and Transcript and the Saint John Telegraph Journal which also circulates provincially in a slightly modified form as the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal. In addition the Irving's publishing arm Brunswick News as recently acquired nine subscription-based community weekly papers and six free community weeklies.

2. "NBers Watching What Happens to Our Ex-MLAs" - Fredericton Daily Gleaner September 13, 2003, pA10; "Sliding Back into Patronage" - Moncton Times and Transcript September 10, 2003, pD7; "Stepping Across the Line to Patronage" - September 23, 2003 pA8.

3. "Unions Must Be Realistic" - Moncton Times and Transcript, October 2, 2003, pD7; "Should Province Be in the Business of Running Colleges?" - Fredericton Daily Gleaner October 11, 2003, pA10; "Stop Messing with Education" - Saint John Telegraph Journal October 8, 2003, pA8).

4. DeMont, John. (1991). Citizens Irving: K.C. Irving and his legacy. Toronto: Doubleday Canada Limited.

5. Canadian Business Magazine 100 wealthiest people in Canada 2002 http://www.canadianbusiness.com/rich100/list.asp retrieved October 30, 2003

6.New Brunswick department of Intergovernmental and International Relations news release October 20, 2003 www.gnb.ca/cnb/news/iga/2003e0944ig.htm retrieved October 22, 2003

7.Observers say that if you want to know where the Irvings will expand next, look at their accounts payable. Irving companies deal with other Irving companies, when possible, and the ethos of the group is that "Irving families" will patronize Irving companies. The Irving's own Canada's largest oil refinery, and constructed a deep water port in Saint John, called Canaport, to import and export crude and refined oil via supertankers. They built gas stations, so they needed construction capacity. They established or bought Ocean Steel, Irving Equipment Ltd., Strescon Ltd., Thorne's Hardware, and so on, to keep the control and profits in the group. The Irvings have goods to move, so they bought or created trucking arms, like Midland Transport and Sunbury Transport, and shipping, including Kent Lines, and tug boat capacity, in the form of Atlantic Towing Ltd. To build ships, they acquired the major shipyards in Saint John and Halifax, as well as some lesser operations in the region. They bought both saw mills and wood land and these acquisitions supported each other. As they were producing forest products, they acquired a Pulp and Paper Mill. To retail their lumber, they established a hardware/lumber yard chain, Kent Building Supplies. They also established Kent Homes, a house prefabrication company that ships pre-built homes all over the region, and increasingly, all over the world. It was logical to produce newsprint, and to acquire the major customers for newsprint. So over a period of time they acquired all of the provincial English-language daily newspapers. As well as other outlets for paper products, like Majesta paper towels and toilet paper and have recently moved into Diaper production as well.

8. On Nov. 21, 2002, at a joint meeting he chaired of two cabinet committees, Mr. Rock presented an incentive plan to aid struggling Canadian shipbuilders. The Irvings are Canada's largest shipbuilders. On June 27, 2003, The industry department gave the Irvings a $55-million grant to help convert an idle Irving shipyard in Saint John for other uses (Robert Fife, Rock Disregarded ethics ruling to advance Irvings' cause - Ottawa Citizen October 16, 2003).

9. "Chipman workers picket Irving mill" - NB CBC October 1 2003.

10. "Mill workers walk out" - Fredericton Daily Gleaner, October 1, 2002, pA1/A2

11.Bob Hicks, President of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour quoted in Halifax Chronicle-Herald, January 30, 1997, A12).

12. Saint John Telegraph Journal, June 13, 1996

13. Saint John Telegraph Journal, January, 1997

14. "Refinery Hires 1,000 for Maintenance Project" - Saint John Telegraph Journal, October 3, 2003, pA5

15. www.irvingoilco.com/media_release/turnaround.htm

16. DeMont, John. (1991). Citizens Irving: K.C. Irving and his legacy. Toronto: Doubleday Canada Limited.

17. Leger, Mark. (1995). "He's Hired, He's Fired, He's Rehired, He's ..." Ryerson Review of Journalism (Spring), 46-53.

18. Steuter, Erin. 1999. The Irvings Cover Themselves: Media Representations of the Irving Oil Refinery Strike, 1994-1996. Canadian Journal of Communication, Vol.24, no.4., pp.629-647.

19. Steuter 1999

20. "Time to get on with prosperity" - Saint John Telegraph Journal October 10, 2003 pA1/A11.

21. Shah, Hemant (2003). Journalism in the Age of Mass media Globalization. http://www.idsnet.org/Papers/Communications/HEMANT_SHAH.HTM

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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