Canada's billionaires: Did you hear about the Irvings?

The most detailed, up-to-date exposé of the costs of the Irving monopoly over New Brunswick's newspapers

In this review of Irving vs. Irving: Canada's Feuding Billionaires and the Stories they won't tell, Canada's third wealthiest family -- who have a monopoly on New Brunswick’s English-language print media and billions of dollars in offshore accounts -- is examined against the backdrop of their history and relationships and their newspaper operations. Read on!

To think about the media landscape in New Brunswick, and the economy and politics more generally, one must come to terms with the power of the Irving family.

From roots in southeastern New Brunswick in the 1920s, by the 1970s family patriarch K.C. Irving built a NB-based conglomerate based on oil refining, export and domestic retail petroleum sales, forestry, manufacturing, transportation and media holdings.

That last one the list currently includes all the English-language daily newspapers --  Fredericton's The Daily Gleaner, Saint John's Telegraph-Journal and Moncton Times & Transcript -- most of the English weeklies and private radio stations.

At one time the Irvings also owned the province's de facto CBC television affiliate, CHSJ in Saint John.

After K.C.s death in 1993, the businesses were run by his three sons, J.K. Irving, Arthur and Jack, and now are run by their children and grandchildren.

Important to note: Despite the rhetoric of the self-made man, the rise of the Irving Group was based not only on the hard work of K.C. Irving, his sons and his thousands of employees, but also on New Brunswick taxpayers who have borne the costs of municipal tax concessions, subsidized water and access to Crown lands, government grants and low-interest loans.

Though New Brunswick is one of the country's smaller provinces it has often shown early signs of social, economic and political change for both good and ill.

New Brunswick's own quiet revolution under the leadership of Louis J. Robichaud predated that of Quebec in the 1960s, and NB has the ignominious distinction of being an early adopter of provincial Neoconservatism in the form of the Frank McKenna Liberal government starting in 1987.

Monopoly! New Brunswick newspaper edition

The Irvings controlled the New Brunswick economy and media landscape long before Conrad Black, the Asper family and the Sun newspaper chain would emerge in central and western Canada.

It should be no surprise that the Irving's newspaper monopoly has been the subject of vigorous regional debate, though that debate has often been ignored west of the NB-Québec border.

Critics of the Irving monopoly have expressed concerns similar to those that energized the Davey Senate Committee, the Kent Royal Commission and the more recent Canadian Senate Inquiry on newspapers.

The production and consumption of news is fundamental to a liberal democracy and yet monopoly ownership reduces competition, editorial independence and quality, especially when the monopoly owners also own 300 companies and employ one-eighth of NB workers and have economic interests in every facet of the New Brunswick economy, and increasingly, Nova Scotia, PEI and the U.S. State of Maine.

In its 2005 report, the Canadian Senate review of the Canadian news media faulted New Brunswick for not having a press council or media watchdog organization that would ensure that the public is being served by the Irving-owned newspapers.

To encourage more competition and diversity of media voices, the Senate report recommended financial aid for new publications, more licences for community radio and television stations and improved broadband services in rural areas.

New federal legislation was suggested that would give the government more clout in dealing with the situation in New Brunswick. So far no action has been taken on these recommendations.

Going beyond Arthur vs. Kenneth

It is against this backdrop that veteran New Brunswick journalist Jacques Poitras has made this contribution, Irving vs. Irving: Canada's Feuding Billionaires and the Stories they won't tell.

This book contains lots of good examples of how the Irvings run their newspapers, on the Irving family relationships and the terms and conditions of work for editors and journalists in the Irving papers.

It is billed on the front cover as about "feuding billionaires," a conflict in part between Kenneth Irving and his father Arthur Irving, which is now hard to ignore since the Wall Street Journal broke the story in the Spring and Summer of 2014 (though it has not yet been acknowledged in the Irving papers).

While conflict over the newspapers played a role in the family feud, the project clearly began as a story about the Irvings and how they manage their media holdings.

The reader who has followed the Irvings will see familiar stories as told in the work of Russell Hunt and Colin Campbell, Michael Clow, John DeMont, Harvey Sawler, Kim Kierans and Erin Steuter.

But the strength of this book is the author's thorough interviews with former Irving journalists and editors, academics, politicians and members of the Irving family, including Joan Carlisle Irving, the ex-wife of the second oldest brother, Arthur.

It is fair to say that the bulk of Poitras's work confirms what critics have been saying for 40 years. The Irvings do not seem to understand or appreciate the distinctiveness of media enterprises and they try to apply their personalistic management style from the energy, forestry and trucking sectors to the newspapers.

So even if the papers are profitable, the Irvings manage the operations to try to maximize productivity and profits, even if there is high employee turnover and even if journalists feel deprofessionalized.

An example that jumps out is found on pages 148-149, in which John Irving, Jack's oldest son, proposed that the white-collar employees of the paper should wear uniforms, which, in the case of employees of the Irving gas stations, "raised their morale and made them feel like a team."

Apparently, Mr. Irving also thought that the main floor of the Crown Street office of the Saint John paper could make do with one water cooler instead of two.

Poitras confirms what others before him have found, that the Irvings own and run newspapers but their broad business interests are also intertwined with all three orders of government and many other private sector businesses.

It should be no surprise that they are sensitive to public criticism of news and editorial content that might hurt their varied interests. The papers experience a high turnover of editors and the firing of publishers, editors and journalists, often for seeming to do their jobs too well and alienating Irving family members, government officials and business associates.

Let's be a bit more critical!

Having said this, there are a whole variety of ways in which Poitras could improve this book.

In general, Poitras provides the best collection of stories on the Irvings' press activities, but the analysis should be better.

First, Poitras's strategy is to position himself as a "reasonable critic" of the Irving press, which means criticizing those more critical than him even though his work largely confirms the key points that critics have been making and continue to make.

Second, Poitras does provide a strong account of the merging of the three remaining dailies into Brunswick News, and the purchase of many of the province's weekly papers, but he doesn't situate it in a contemporary era in which governments have retreated from regulation and private investors are even more clearly "kings of the province" than was the case in the Davey and Kent eras in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Despite his self-portrayal as the reasonable critic, or perhaps because of it, Poitras is totally silent on the most important way in which owners influence the news.

As is well established in the literature, the best way for an owner to control the outlet is to appoint the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, and whoever else is within the purview of ownership. You appoint someone like-minded, sharing your libertarian capitalist or conservative ideology, and they will run the outlet in a way you would approve of without need for your intervention.

Poitras repeatedly takes at face value those editors and owners who profess never to hear from the owners, without asking the question of whether those same people are ever at odds with the ideology and interest of ownership. He also does not challenge the Irving's odd claim that they do not know why they bother with the papers.

Poitras does not point out that historically control of the papers has given the family a great deal of influence over New Brunswick's politics and political culture, that historically these have been profitable businesses, and that until recently they consumed the product of Irving pulp and paper operations.

Finally, Poitras could say more about the actual working life of journalists.

He notes that the Irving journalists are required to file 1,500 words a day, and they are monitored. Is that at the root of the problem of editors allowing the running of corporate press releases from Irving-owned companies, or is there some other explanation?

Also, Poitras currently works for CBC Radio in New Brunswick. Given that the CBC and private electronic broadcaster have faced budget and staffing cuts, in what ways have the deficiencies of the Irving papers reduced the quality of coverage in his own cash-starved outlet?

So long as the reader keeps these weaknesses in mind, this book is the most detailed and up-to-date exposé of the costs of the Irving monopoly over New Brunswick's newspapers.

 

Geoff Martin is a Part-time Assistant Professor of Politics, International Relations and Canadian Studies at Mount Allison University, Sackville, NB.

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