In January of 1974, K. C. Irving Limited et al. were charged and convicted under the Combines Investigation Act for planning to create, and sustain a monopoly in the newspaper industry of New Brunswick. The proposed merger was deemed to be detrimental to public interest, according to the trial judge at the time.
Irving and the newly acquired companies appealed the decision and won. The Crown then appealed the decision, taking it to the Supreme Court of Canada. The Supreme Court Justices upheld the original appeal stating that the Crown had not given enough evidence to prove that the formation of such a monopoly was in fact detrimental to the public interest. Irving was allowed to maintain its ownership of all English daily newspapers.
And the rest, as they say, is history. That was the last legal challenge to the Irving family’s ownership of print media in New Brunswick. The court decision destroyed the idea that a monopoly in an industry, so long as it brings economic benefit to the area, is not inherently bad. This, however, is a very narrow understanding of the public interest. It gives very little attention to the fact that the news industry is not like other industries. It is also meant to serve the public interest in another way, by informing the public of events that matter to them.
The Irvings’ monopoly on the distribution, publication, and generation of print news in this province has much wider consequences beyond the economic. It affects the public socially and politically as well. It is in these areas that a monopoly, by a corporate entity, can, and should be argued to be detrimental to the public interest.
Ironically, as I write this article, The Brunswickan is in negotiations with Brunswick Publishing Inc., which is owned by the Irvings to get them to print our paper. The last major printer of newsprint in the province, that was owned by a New Brunswick company other than Irving, has shut down its operations, making Irving the only New Brunswick owned company in the province. The monopoly continues.
The Irving family owns roughly 300 companies that are involved in things from oil refining, to toilet paper manufacturing, to newspapers. And as such, its interests lie in many areas. The majority of its companies operate in New Brunswick, but also extend into the New England states, other parts of Atlantic Canada, as well as Québec and Ontario. It is involved in just about every aspect of provincial life.
Irving-owned newspapers are often dominated by their role to provide the population of New Brunswick with a positive image of Irving, or create an absence of news when it is convenient for Irving. With corporate control of the papers in the hands of Irving, they serve as the public relations department of the Irving companies under the veil of objective journalism within the free press; the papers are neither objective nor free from censorship.
Usually, when we think of censorship we think of Big Brother and the government silencing newspaper or the media from releasing information that may cast doubt on the government or reveal horrendous government actions. The Irving newspapers have, and currently do have their content affected by their owners, both directly and indirectly.
According to Dr. Erin Steuter, professor at Mount Allison University, during the editorial reign of Neil Reynolds, he was phoned every other day by J. K. Irving, to discuss what the owner liked or disliked about the paper’s content. One specific instance of interference involved reporters being told not to report on an Irving tugboat running aground for fears it would up insurance costs.
Obvious instances of direct censorship are perhaps more rare or hidden, than the more likely self-censorship, which current and former reporters undertake everyday. No journalist in his or her right mind – if they wanted to continue to work in New Brunswick at a newspaper – would report a story that showed Irving in an overtly negative light. When there’s only one game in town for you to make a go of it in journalism, that choice would undoubtedly affect your career prospects.
A search through the last two years of Irving newspapers for the word “Irving” resulted in the majority of the stories sounding more like press releases than objective news stories. The majority of articles focused on Irving’s philanthropy, Irving winning an award or giving an award. Some stories were just about what the Irving company thought about a particular political event, such as one story which focused on its critique of the NB government’s decision to put a cap on the cutting that occurs on Crown land.
Other stories involving something negative in relation to an Irving decision usually absolve Irving of any wrongdoing. Case-in-point: the stories covering the closure of Irving pulp and paper mills in northern New Brunswick in the fall of 2011. The closures were blamed on Irving’s inability to get enough wood from Crown lands.
With the public image of Irving constantly portrayed in such a positive, uncritical light, it’s difficult for citizens of New Brunswick to fully understand the scope of Irving’s involvement in the future of the province’s economy and the role it has played in political and economic decisions. Irving’s control of the newspaper industry has allowed it to operate in this province with little to no open public challenges.
Censored news does not serve the public interest. It is in this way that the Irving monopoly is deleterious to the public good. The censored press controlled by Irving pretends to be a free press; a free press that gives objective news stories to the population. It is the essence of the censored press that is harmful. For, as a famous bearded journalist from 19th century Europe once said, “The essence of the free press is the characterful, rational, moral essence of freedom. The character of the censored press is the characterless monster of unfreedom; it is a civilized monster.”
The laws in Canada must recognize the social and political impact of near monopoly ownership of the news media by corporate interests. People must demand a new format to get their news in this province; news that represents its interests and does not push the corporate interests of Irving as objective truths.
Cody Jack writes for The Brunswickan where this column first appeared.