The public’s ability to make an informed decision regarding the sale of NB Power is being limited by the almost complete monopoly over the province’s newspapers, says a Mount Allison sociologist who specializes in the media.
Dr. Erin Steuter’s research into the Irving media’s coverage of the NB Power sale reveals that the Irving-owned papers are generally echoing pro-government positions. She considers the papers to be failing in their journalistic duty to research all side sides of the issue. “They have not inquired into the job loss projections and are failing to investigate the potential long-term costs of the deal to New Brunswickers,” she says.
The Irving family owns every English language daily paper in NB and every community paper except two. They own four radio stations, the Brunswick News wire service, which distributes local news to the national papers. They also own a news website called canadaeast.com.
“The papers are presenting the view that what’s good for the Irving company is good for the province” Steuter says. “What we need is good investigative reporting to dig deep and provide New Brunswickers with a clear analysis of all sides of the proposed deal. Monopoly media ownership does not offer this and the public is paying the price.”
Irving-owned business including Irving Oil, and Irving Tissue have come out in favour of the sale, which guarantees electricity rate cuts for five years for current, large industrial users. Irving companies stand to benefit significantly from lower power rates following the proposed sale of NB Power to Hydro-Québec because they dominate the manufacturing sector of the province.
The Irving group of companies includes over 300 companies in operations that span forestry, transportation, and construction and it is not exposed to critical inquiry in its own newspapers. It has an estimated net worth of approximately 5 billion dollars.
For example, she explains that labelling the people who have raised concerns about the proposed deal as “energy pact foes” or running editorials that claim “Power deal good for NB” are common tactics by which the Irving media favour the sale of NB Power.
Steuter’s research into the Irving-owned media’s coverage of the deal revealed that the papers regularly characterize the deal as “rational,” and based on “logical arguments, ” while opposition to the sale of NB Power to Quebec is characterized as “emotional” and “foolish.”
The bias towards the interests of big business is apparent in much of the Irving-owned media coverage of the proposed sale. The papers perpetuate the view that only large-scale, for-profit corporations should be directing the development of New Brunswick’s energy sector. They reason that businesses can “carry the financial risk while citizens reap the benefits.” The notion that the public, through crown-corporations, could develop new Brunswick’s natural resources, in a sustainable and profitable manner is treated as an impossibility.
For example, environmental analysts and sustainability experts have stated that New Brunswick has the potential to become the Saudi Arabia of wind-power. Yet the Irving-papers state that “The idea that New Brunswick should build wind farms at provincial expense is a non-starter.”
Steuter says she fears this is the most important public policy decision of the last 35 years and the people of New Brunswick will not have access to all sides of the issue as they try to educate themselves. The government has not provided the documents for the essential details of the revised agreement for the public to examine, and the Irving-owned media have failed to investigate the potential damage that the sale could do to the future of New Brunswickers.
“Monopoly media ownership means that there is very little journalistic investigation available to New Brunswick readers,” she says. “The Irving papers regularly take identical stances in their editorials, cover similar news stories, and regularly ignore and marginalize certain topics, most notably environmental issues, and in this case, the importance of local control of energy and economic development.”
This monopoly has a trickle-down impact on other media as well. The CBC, which has experienced significant job cuts, often lacks the staff to fully investigate issues and relies increasingly on newspaper content for its own news gathering, she says. The national media also takes its cues from local Irving reporting.
It is also challenging for competitors to start competing newspapers, as in the case of the Carleton Free Press and Here. The Irving group use aggressive legal tactics and can afford to reduce advertising prices temporarily to preserve its monopoly market share.
Monopoly media in New Brunswick has resulted in a situation where, during times of important public debate requiring critical discussions of important social and economic issues that affect the lives and livelihoods of communities, the daily news papers are failing to investigate all sides of the issue. Instead they are presenting the story in a skewed and self-serving manner. “The Irving’s monopoly ownership of media gives this one corporation an unparalleled venue to promote its own interests as well as insulate itself from inquiries and criticism,” says Steuter.
Media Advisory: Dr. Erin Steuter and Dr. Geoff Martin of Mount Allison University will present “NB Power, Politics and the Press: the Challenges of Making an Informed Choice in a Monopoly Media Environment,” at noon on January 26 at the Moncton Public Library as part of Mount Allison’s Lunch and Learn program. The public is invited to bring their lunch, and the library will provide beverages and desserts.