Media watchers in New Brunswick, including the NB Media Co-op, have long criticized the Irving group of companies’ cross-ownership of media and various industrial interests in the province. However, media critics are not celebrating the news of Postmedia’s purchase of Irving’s newspapers.
“Postmedia has a history of syndicating racist commentators and platforming far-right pundits across their chain so we can expect New Brunswick to become the latest battleground for these cynical attempts to divide our communities, something that the Irving media has also done,” said Aditya Rao with the NB Media Co-op.
“The Postmedia purchase of J.D. Irving’s newspapers also means that New Brunswick, which is already a news desert, will see even less accountability and news coverage than it currently does if this deal goes through,” added Rao.
Late on Thursday night, February 17, Postmedia Network Inc. announced they were buying several assets of Brunswick News Inc., including newspapers, a parcel delivery service and proprietary distribution software. Brunswick News is owned by J.D. Irving Ltd.
The approximate $15 million deal involves the purchase of New Brunswick’s three dailies, Telegraph-Journal, Times & Transcript and The Daily Gleaner.
Besides the dailies, the fate of local newspapers, Miramichi Leader, Woodstock’s Bugle-Observer, Bathurst’s Northern Light, Sussex’s Kings County Record, Campbellton’s Tribune, and Grand Falls’ Victoria Star has also been questioned with the change in their ownership.
From Brunswick News, Postmedia has also bought French language newspapers, L’Étoile and InfoWeekend, and the printing shop that prints the province’s only French language daily newspaper, L’Acadie Nouvelle.
Postmedia is majority-owned by the American hedge fund, Chatham Asset Management. They boast ownership of 120 brands in Canada, including The National Post, The Financial Post, Vancouver Sun, Calgary Herald, Edmonton Journal, Ottawa Citizen, Windsor Star, and The London Free Press.
Postmedia was founded in 1998 by right-wing media baron Conrad Black. Black later spent time in a Florida prison for fraud and obstruction of justice. While U.S. president, Donald Trump pardoned Black after he had written a flattering biography of the then U.S. president. Today, Black’s columns regularly appear in The National Post.
What’s good for Postmedia is good for Irving
Erin Steuter is a sociologist at Mount Allison University who specializes in critical media studies. She has studied Irving’s media monopoly, including the dangers of the Irvings covering themselves as well as Irving’s dominant pro-business narrative.
“Irvings were ruthless in shutting down competitors and if they are getting out of the narrative management game, then some new voices may be allowed to emerge,” said Steuter.
“The papers are presenting the view that what’s good for the Irving company is good for the province,” Steuter told the NB Media Co-op in 2010 when the province of New Brunswick proposed to sell NB Power to Hydro-Québec.
New Brunswick, one of the poorest provinces in Canada, is home to two Irving billionaires, Arthur Irving and James Irving.
Alain Deneault, a tax haven scholar and critic, has studied how the Irvings have made themselves billionaires by avoiding paying taxes.
“I am reminded of a hard-hitting sentence by Toronto journalist Diane Francis: ‘New Brunswick is a company town owned by the Irving family.’ But technically, that ownership is held in a series of trusts in Bermuda. Now that the family is divesting itself of its newspaper titles, it at least gives the appearance of greater independence on the part of journalists but the problem of the concentration of the media remains and is considerably detrimental to public debate,” said Deneault.
Deneault recalled when the Desmarais family in Québec shed its major dailies in 2018, including La Presse. “The Irving family, like the Desmarais family, act like emperors when it suits them to do so,” said Deneault.
“Letting Postmedia do the dirty work will not fool anyone except the members of this opulent family, convinced that they are saving appearances when they deceive themselves,” added Deneault.
For Deneault, the control of information was a form of investment for the Irvings: “The fact that they are abandoning their newspapers is symptomatic, as if the ideological battle has been won, and the common consciousness is so objectively constrained by capitalism, that it is no longer worthwhile to devote funds to it.”
K.C. Irving’s son Jim Irving is the current owner of J.D. Irving Ltd. K.C. Irving entered the newspaper business after buying a Saint John weekly newspaper, Maritime Broadcaster, in 1936. By 1968, his company had bought all five English-language daily newspapers in the province.
With the Postmedia acquisition of Brunswick News Inc., the Irvings, Canada’s eighth richest family in 2015, are not completely out of the media business in Atlantic Canada.
Acadia Broadcasting, owned by Ocean Capital Investments, is a holding company that has represented the interests of John E. Irving’s group of companies. In 2018, the Irving Oil Family Trust made a deal with the John E. Irving family to take over control of Irving Oil.
Acadia Broadcasting owns Huddle, a digital business-focused media outlet, and 15 radio stations in Atlantic Canada and Ontario. John K.F. Irving is the president of Ocean Capital Investments. Besides broadcasting, Ocean Capital Investments has interests in real estate, construction, and petroleum service.
Controlling information, winning elections
Besides media ownership, there are other ways that the Irvings control information. Irving companies are private companies so there is little information available to the public about their operations.
During the 2021 hearings where Irving Oil unsuccessfully sought to increase its fuel prices, Irving refused to disclose important information about their business practices. Not the media but anti-poverty groups, the Common Front for Social Justice and Grassroots NB, and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), had to press Irving for this information. In response, Irving chose to withdraw their application, considered a win by social justice groups not used to Irving not getting their way.
In John Demont’s book, Citizens Irving: K.C. Irving and His Legacy: The Story of Canada’s Wealthiest Family, the author noted that one of K.C. Irving’s sons boasted that his father never lost an election in New Brunswick.
While J.D. Irving’s Brunswick News may not have officially endorsed one of the only two parties to ever govern in New Brunswick in their editorials, Postmedia has directed the editorial boards of its newspapers to endorse the Conservative Party of Canada.
“Postmedia systematically bullied the editors of their newspapers into endorsing the Harper Conservatives during the 2015 election. A month after the election, the Ottawa Citizen editorial board resigned in protest,” noted Rao.
Rao and Steuter are both worried that New Brunswick journalists will lose their jobs and that local content will suffer if Postmedia does what they are known to do: buy newspapers then shut them down. Postmedia is also known for turning local newspapers into advertising carriers.
Steuter notes that Irving’s influence over the media will not go away: “Irvings will continue to have influence in media coverage of themselves in their capacity as advertisers for hundreds of companies.”
Uncrossing the wires
Julian Walker, author of Wires Crossed: Memoirs of a Citizen and Reporter in the Irving Press, is a long-time critic of the Irving media monopoly. In his newly released book, he describes three national commissions on Canadian media that “viewed New Brunswick as the worst example of concentrated ownership and cross-ownership in the country.”
“While I see the end of the 75-year cross ownership between the Irving family media and its industrial holdings (beginning with KC Irving’s acquisition of the Telegraph-Journal in 1946) as a positive development, it does not relieve the federal government of its special obligation to the province of New Brunswick and its press,” said Walker.
Walker says the federal government showed leadership in supporting a more free press in the province when it forced the sale of CHSJ television and radio to CBC, clearing the way for the establishment of the province’s English CBC television station and three English CBC radio stations. Walker also notes that federal funds supported the establishment of New Brunswick’s French language daily newspaper, L’Acadie Nouvelle.
“The obligation on the feds with the sale of Irving media holdings to the Postmedia conglomerate is all the more real because the senior level of government looked the other way on the Irving acquisition after the year 2000 of all remaining independent weeklies in the province, except for the Saint Croix Courier. There is much more that the federal government needs to do,” said Walker.
Walker wants to see the federal government put in place a special trust fund to back a new independent, digital daily to serve the province.
While J.D. Irving shedding its newspapers was a shock to some and long expected by others, the Postmedia purchase has media watchers thinking about how to increase media literacy when white supremacist and hate groups deploy fake news and other subtle and not so subtle strategies on social media to win supporters.
The NB Media Co–op hopes to continue increasing media literacy in the province as it grows, hires reporters to provide local media coverage, and collaborates with other independent media outlets such as CHCO TV and CHMA to create a more healthy information ecosystem in the province.
In 2015, the NB Media Co-op collaborated with Canadaland, known for its critical commentary on the media, to discuss JD Irving’s control of the media and forestry in the province.
“We cannot afford the Irving media monopoly in our province. We certainly will not be able to afford Postmedia’s relentless anti-worker, anti-immigrant and corporate-interest propaganda rags in New Brunswick. It is past time to break up these companies. Now, more than ever,” said Rao.
Tracy Glynn is the coordinating editor of the NB Media Co-op.