Owning the competition: Irving’s media monopoly in New Brunswick

Written by Ian Balzer on March 23, 2019

K.C. Irving Riverside Park and Monument in Bouctouche, New Brunswick. Photo by Brian Atkinson from the Images of New Brunswick databank.

The name ‘Irving’ is ubiquitous in New Brunswick. Indeed it is difficult to find a stretch of highway throughout the province where one would not encounter an ‘Irving’ gas station, or a billboard with the family’s name on it. The Irving family companies hold the majority of stakes in forestry, oil and gas, and a host of transportation and shipping outfits to export their immense volume of extracted resources, all of which has insulated the companies from any serious threat of market competition.

In owning most of the pulp and paper production in New Brunswick, it was not altogether surprising that the Irvings entered the newspaper industry, eventually buying ‘New Brunswick Publishing Co.’ (now ‘Brunswick News Inc.’ (BNI)) in 1944. Throughout the next two decades, K.C. Irving, head of the family dynasty at the time, bought out the remaining English-language newspaper publishers in New Brunswick. This resulted in a media monopoly situation that ultimately resulted in legal action against K.C Irving, Ltd., New Brunswick Publishing Company, and two of the Irving’s media subsidiaries in 1974.

K.C. Irving, Ltd. was found guilty on all four counts brought against them, involving conspiracy to undermine their competition under the Combines Investigation Act. A year later the verdict was appealed, and the convictions set aside. Although it was agreed that K.C. Irving, Ltd. held control over the media in such a manner as to meet the first part of the definition of “monopoly,” it was not proven that “… the persons having such control had operated or were likely to operate to the detriment or against the interest of the public.”

The Court of Appeal also distinguished between the physical newspapers being distributed, and the ideas portrayed therein, as such ideas are not considered as “an article of trade or commerce” under the Act. This distinction is problematic as it is the ideas, not the paper itself, that are likely to adversely affect public opinion.

Bruce Livesey, a journalist at the National Observer, has written extensively on the family and its control over the media, including their tendency to bully any potential competition with extensive juridical and financial resources.

CBC journalist Jacques Poitras, in his book Irving vs. Irving, has suggested that with the introduction of social media, the Irvings have lost a portion of their stronghold on New Brunswick’s media. His point was in reference to the Irving newspapers’ controversial coverage, indirectly supporting the sale of publicly-owned NB Power to energy giant Hydro-Quebec in 2009, and the following public outcry via Twitter and Facebook. However, though online media sources have been able to disrupt BNI’s media control, the print monopoly remains troubling in its effect on public opinion.

The Irving media monopoly is problematic for two reasons: 1) due to the Irving companies’ heavy involvement in New Brunswick resource extraction and other industries, a glaring conflict of interest exists with BNI’s reporting of stories involving those industries, and 2) the content of BNI newspapers become wrought with neoliberal underpinnings.

Two of BNI’s daily publications, the Telegraph-Journal and The Daily Gleaner, are notorious in their corporate bias in content related to Irving affairs, such as pipelines, carbon-tax, and glyphosate (herbicide) spraying in New Brunswick. In the case of glyphosate spraying, which has been linked to the drastic decrease in the white-tailed deer population, J.D. Irving, Ltd. (JDI) has made direct efforts to misquote and undermine the provincial government’s chief deer biologist, Rod Cumberland, by issuing a report stating that Cumberland’s work is “irresponsible,” and “not supported by current data and scientific research.” Cumberland’s research suggested that herbicides caused a reduction of 32,000 tons of hardwood browse, a primary food source for the deer, per year, whereas JDI’s biologist, John Gilbert instead blamed the decline on “bad winters.” Similar scandalous attempts to manipulate public opinion in the company’s favour are examined by Livesey.

Regarding the introduction of a carbon tax in New Brunswick, BNI’s content, most notably in the Telegraph-Journal, assumes a stance that such a tax will only negatively impact New Brunswickers, and fails to acknowledge the widely studied effectiveness of carbon tax in reducing green house gas emissions. The fact that Irving Oil is one of the companies that would take the biggest hit from this tax gives them a major incentive to negatively affect public opinion on the issue, and the lack of genuine diversity in New Brunswick media means there is little opportunity for meaningful debate.

Regulations such as the Combines Investigation Act, which later became the Competition Act, are implemented to prevent massive corporations like Irving from having unfair advantage in the marketplace, by using their power and money to buy out any competitors, as they did with other media outlets in the province. By regulating market participation, these Acts aim to create a more equitable economy in hopes of achieving fairer results, making it more difficult for companies, such as those operated by the Irving family, to monopolize industries like the media.

Toby Couture, an energy analyst and formerly a researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science, suggests that the staggering evidence of excessive control of English-speaking daily newspapers by the media conglomerate should indicate an obvious decision on the part of Canada’s Competition Bureau to break up the monopoly, but whether or not this action will ever occur remains dubious.

‘Freedom of the press,’ a hallmark of democracies around the world, has often referred to inhibiting overbearing governments from interfering in the media. However, in our current neoliberal climate, where government regulation continues to drop, it is multinational corporations that have become the source of propaganda and censorship.

The ease and conspicuousness with which corporate giants are able to exploit the mainstream media for their own ends indicates how deeply entrenched we, particularly in New Brunswick, are in a dominant neoliberal ideology, where the free market is synonymous with fairness.

One source of resistance to New Brunswick’s media monopoly is in supporting online, community-funded news sources.

It seems clear that regulations like the Competition Act have not been sufficient in breaking the stranglehold the Irving family has over media in the province. Further attention must be given to the issue of fairness regarding the Irving companies’ capacity to maintain power, which prevents smaller publications, without wealthy corporate backing, from surviving. Without further regulatory or policy changes that would restrict the Irving family’s control over print media, they will continue to impose a corporate agenda on New Brunswick residents.

In her contribution to libertarianism, Ayn Rand suggests that an unrestricted free market is the best way to ensure a fair and transparent society. However, the Irving dynasty has shown time and again that an unregulated market can only lead to the propagation of private interests, which in the case of print media in New Brunswick means the prevention of diverse opinions on issues such as resource extraction that can have deep impacts on the well being of those affected.

Ian Balzer is a social work student at St. Thomas University in Fredericton.

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