Janice Harvey explores the changing eco-political discourse in Canadian media

Written by Sophie M. Lavoie on February 6, 2018

Janice Harvey speaking on the changing eco-political discourse on the Globe and Mail on Feb. 2, 2018 at St. Thomas University in Fredericton. Photo by Matthew Hayes.

Janice Harvey showed the “corporate dominance of political agendas” in her investigation of editorials found in leading Canadian newspaper, something very relevant to New Brunswick politics at a talk to students, professors and community members at St. Thomas University on Feb. 2.

Her talk was titled, “Tracking Legitimacy in Eco-Political Discourse: 50 Years of Eco-Political Discourse in Globe and Mail Editorials.”

Harvey is current Acting Chair in Environment and Society at St. Thomas University, preparing to defend her PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies at UNB. This talk was largely drawn from her PhD dissertation, something not necessarily meant for the larger public, according to Harvey, but which attracted 35 people on a snowy afternoon.

In her approach to this study, Harvey was motivated by speculation on “how to be more effective activists” and her surprise at what she terms as “going backwards” on environmental issues in recent years. She called the seventies and eighties a “remarkable” time for activism. But, during her work at the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, she found herself eventually “fighting battles again that we thought we’d won.” At the same time, scientific evidence was overwhelmingly convincing about the negative effects of climate change but the government was largely inactive. “Because the public was not reacting,” according to Harvey, the Canadian government was getting away with more and more inaction.

She studied the Globe and Mail editorials from 1960 up until 2016. Harvey shared a number of quotes from the newspaper’s editorials, some of them surprising in their pro-environmental tone, especially in the earlier period she studied. However, the tone of the editorials slowly changed to being undeniably anti-environmental. Furthermore, occasionally, Harvey found that clear “climate change denial” percolated from the writing.

Harvey grounded her theoretical work about hegemony in that of Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci. In her theorization, “consent is gained through discourse,” much of which is produced by the elite and must “resonate with the common sense” of the people. Harvey clarified that “hegemonic discourse is not imposed;” “it tries to accommodate the public’s expectations” while creating an acceptance of the ideas of those in power. In turn, she stated, “public discourse shapes what is possible to achieve in addressing environmental degradation.”

Harvey chose to turn to media to see the eco-political discourse because it is “where the official and unofficial discourses are negotiated.” For her, the Globe and Mail is “an establishment newspaper,” a paper of the elites, and has been “influential and very powerful.” In terms of environmental editorials, in Harvey’s research, 1972 was the year with the most editorials while in 2007, the environmental focus shifted to “global warming” and “climate change.”

In the beginning of the period she researched, the Globe and Mail “took on the language of the environmentalists” as it evolved, and this “consistently across nearly three decades.” Between 1987 and 1992, there was a “major shift” with a consistent push toward deregulation, away from what Harvey called a “more communitarian and collective life” and towards increased competition and individualism. In the nineties, there is outright hostility against the environmental movement, “delegitimizing its discourse from previous decades.” Between 1997 and 2002, the Globe and Mail “had to get out of the denial box” because science had proven climate change irrefutably but this position put the newspaper in a problematic ambivalence between the neoliberal discourse and the climate reality. The last fourteen years have been ones of “ambivalence, a real struggle [by the editors] to reconcile the science with the ideology.”

In more recent times, Harvey sensed a release from the ambivalence. For example, the Globe and Mail editors’ comment, on Dec. 1, 2016, that the “Liberals have succeeded in marrying the contradictions, at least rhetorically” in their editorial which read: “It’s possible to meet Canada’s climate change commitments while growing the economy, and even growing the oil industry.” Thus, Harvey stated, “corporate dominance of political agendas has solidified” in a way that it hadn’t in the past.

In answering a question from the public, Harvey said she did not look at the Irving medias’ take on the environment because she knew “there would be no surprises.” However, she was invited to write a column for the Telegraph Journal for years in the mid-nineties, at a time when an editor wanted to “shake things up.” Harvey said she “was the token voice that legitimized the paper,” giving them the opportunity to “pat themselves on the back” for having a dissenting voice.

Sophie Lavoie is an editorial board member of the NB Media Co-op.

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