Book Review: Irving vs. Irving details perils of media monopoly in New Brunswick
When the largest industrial player in New Brunswick owns the news business, it should be no surprise that journalists are treated like every other worker. Reporters who work for the Irvings are required to file 1,500 words a day, electronically monitored as part of Brunswick News’ paywall and the owners have suggested that newsroom staff wear uniforms, so that just like at Irving gas stations, it could “raise their morale and [make] them feel like a team.”
These are just some of interesting anecdotes in veteran CBC New Brunswick journalist Jacques Poitras’ new book, Irving vs. Irving: Canada’s Feuding Billionaires and the Stories They Won’t Tell (Viking Canada). The book is a lively collection about how the Irvings run their newspapers, the relationships within the Irving family and the working conditions for editors and journalists at the Irving papers. The strength of this book is the author’s extensive interviews with dozens of former Irving journalists and editors, academics, politicians, as well as members of the very private Irving family.
Poitras reveals that the Irvings generally don’t understand the distinctiveness of media enterprises and they try to apply their management techniques from the energy, forestry and trucking sectors to the newspapers. Even when the papers are profitable, the Irvings manage the operations to try to maximize productivity at the cost of de-professionalization, high employee turnover and news content that, in many cases, serves the corporation’s interests.
Poitras traces the roots of this media landscape in New Brunswick to the 1920s when family patriarch K.C. Irving built a N.B.-based conglomerate that today encompasses over 300 companies and employs one in 10 workers in the province with economic interests in every facet of the New Brunswick economy, and increasingly, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Maine. The media monopoly includes all the English-language daily newspapers (currently the Fredericton Daily Gleaner, Saint John Telegraph-Journal and Moncton Times and Transcript) and most of the French and English weeklies, as well as several private radio stations. These companies are limited in liability and publicly registered, but they are privately held, and the public knows comparatively little about their operations. After K.C.’s death in 1993, the businesses were run by his three sons, J. K. Irving, Arthur and Jack, and now are largely run by their children and grandchildren.
The book’s title refers to the conflict among the “feuding billionaire” Irvings who recently divided their multi-billion-dollar business empire, much of which is held in tax-free Bermudian trusts. Poitras discusses the split between Kenneth Irving and his father, Arthur, and recounts the frustration of local journalists who were restrained from covering the story of their bosses’ antagonisms. Poitras also paints a picture of Jamie Irving, the Columbia j-school trained vice-president of Brunswick News, who runs the news operation that facilitates the operation of the family businesses, and their network of relationships with three levels of government and multiple private sector organizations—each of which is sensitive to any journalistic scrutiny or criticism that might hurt their interests. Not surprisingly, there is high turnover of editors and the firing of publishers, editors and journalists, often for doing their job too well and rubbing Irving family members and others in the political and economic elite the wrong way.
Poitras’ sources reveal that the Irvings have been known to actively interfere in the papers’ content and editorial policy. Irving journalists have been forbidden to report on oil spills and other industrial accidents caused by their parent company, and in one notorious case of undue influence by the paper’s owners, the Irving family placed a letter on the front page of the Saint John Telegraph Journal on election day telling people that they should vote for the federal Liberals (including one of their family members who was up for election that day).
The Irvings don’t take kindly to competitors, and Poitras recounts how they have engaged in predatory pricing and disreputable business practices to undercut new start-ups.
The production and consumption of news is fundamental to a liberal democracy and yet monopoly ownership reduces competition, editorial independence and quality. As a result, the Irving media have been the subject of numerous investigations. In 1969 the Davey Committee called New Brunswick a “journalistic disaster area.” In 2005, the Senate’s review of the Canadian news media called the monopoly ownership of the media in New Brunswick “unprecedented in the developed world.” Concerns were raised that New Brunswickers weren’t getting a diversity of news and opinion and the report’s authors stated that the Irving press should be doing a better job reflecting the different linguistic perspectives in the province.
Irving vs. Irving is well written and extremely engaging, offering readers the best collection of stories on the Irving media. While Poitras is content to “let the facts speak for themselves,” it would be beneficial for someone with his knowledge of New Brunswick political dynamics to connect the dots and provide a stronger analysis of the causes and consequences of the Irving media monopoly. The reader deserves better than to accept at face value Irving claims that they don’t quite know why they bother with the papers, and Poitras doesn’t himself point out that historically, control of the papers has given the family a great deal of influence over New Brunswick’s politics and political culture, let alone insulated them from any significant journalistic investigation. Nevertheless, Poitras’ work supports the analysis made by many scholars and critics that monopoly media in New Brunswick has resulted in a situation where the population is left with generic news content in which contextualized and critical discussions of important social and economic issues that affect the lives and livelihoods of neighbours and families are addressed in a skewed and self-serving manner. For those new to New Brunswick’s media landscape as well as for local political watchers, the book is a great read with many fascinating insights.
Erin Steuter is professor of sociology at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B. She has conducted research on the Irving media monopoly and was interviewed by the author for this book.