The People

James K. Irving

Arthur L. Irving

John (Jack) E. Irving

 

 

"The establishment, progress, and financial success of the Irving Group of Companies is one of the greatest, and perhaps the most unusual, of all corporate accomplishments in Canadian economic history. By the early 1990s this group included thousands of Irving automobile service stations in eastern Canada and northeastern United States, transport companies, forest industry operations, pulp and paper mills, newspaper, radio, and TV companies, Canada’s largest oil refinery, a modern shipyard, and the first deep-water terminal in the western hemisphere."


The CBC's Coup
The three brothers granted their first-ever, and probably only, television interview to the CBC. The Irvings: Unlocking the Mystery was presented as a CBC television special the week of March 16, 1998. A web site was developed to accompany the CBC's Maritime regional broadcasts of the program. It is now online for archival purposes only. But it contains a wealth of information on this secretive clan.


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The Power

We couldn't have said it better...

This article about the Irving empire is reprinted with the permission of Dr. Erin Steuter and The Dominion web site, where it first appeared. It has been edited by Your Media.

Footnotes (ƒ) page opens in a new browser window

Freedom of the Press is for Those Who Own One

The Irving Media Monopoly in New Brunswick

By Erin Steuter

A corporate empire spanning oil speculation, refining and shipping, gas stations, food products, massive land holdings, forestry, pulp and paper, and employing thousands of New Brunswickers, the Irving group owns the province's three English-language daily newspapers, as well as at least seven weeklies.

There is very little variety in the type of news that is available to New Brunswick readers. We face classic problems of monopoly media ownership in which homogeneity and a narrow range of opinion are common features of the news media.

For example: Last month, all three New Brunswick daily papersƒ1 ran editorials within several days of each other critiquing the government's appointment of unsuccessful provincial conservative candidates to government posts. While this editorial position may well be justified, and reflect the views of a majority of New Brunswickers, the audience nevertheless lost out on the ability to hear any another perspective on this issue.ƒ2

Irving company logosLiving in New Brunswick where all of the English language daily papers are owned by a single large capitalist enterprise means that the voice of the corporate world speaks loudly and the coverage of labour focuses on confrontational and controversial events such as strikes in which labour is scapegoated. For example: this month all three papers ran editorials within several days of each other critical of the community college (employees) and prison custodians who were walking the picket line as part of a Canadian Union of Public Employees' strike. Terms such as irrational, unreasonable, ludicrous and greedy were peppered throughout the editorials revealing a pattern of Irving coverage of labour issues that typically portrays labour as the active and disruptive party.ƒ3

The Irving empire – which includes more than 300 companies,ƒ4 has an estimated net worth of approximately $4 billion,ƒ5 and which employs eight per cent of the New Brunswick labour forceƒ6 in operations that span forestry, transportation and constructionƒ7 – is not exposed to investigative journalistic inquiry in the province's daily papers. Instead, critical observers of the media can easily identify the self-serving nature of the Irvings' media coverage on any issue that concerns themselves. For example: In October all three Irving papers ran similar news headlines that defended their bosses from accusations of undue influence when it was revealed that they had given government ministers free plane trips and fishing junkets.

When the national media reported on the case of the current federal Industry minister Allan Rock, who made highly favourable policy decisions affecting the Irving empire after he went on a fishing trip hosted by the Irvings,ƒ8 the national newspapers' headlines read: "Rock faces new conflict-of-interest questions" (Globe and Mail, Oct 14. 2003) "Rock disregarded ethics ruling to advance Irvings' cause" (National Post, Oct. 20) "New questions arise over Rock, Irvings" (Toronto Star, Oct. 14). Yet a review of headlines in the New Brunswick papers finds: "Rock defends Irving trip" (Fredericton Daily Gleaner, Oct. 11) "Audit of Irving deal shows no evidence of conflict" (Saint John Telegraph-Journal, Oct. 18) "No Conflict in Fishing Trip" (Moncton Times & Transcript, Oct. 11). Similarly, when it became apparent that local MP Claudette Bradshaw had also benefited from Irving trips, the Irving papers covered the story with the headline: "Bradshaw free flight scandal overblown" (Moncton Times & Transcript, Oct. 23).

"The adage that you don't bite the hand that feeds you means that the readers of the New Brunswick papers are being given a very different spin on news than readers in the rest of the country."

The adage that you don't bite the hand that feeds you means that the readers of the New Brunswick papers are being given a very different spin on news than readers in the rest of the country. In this case, the story attracted enough national media attention that local people had access to alternative perspectives by examining the national papers. However, due to the for-profit orientation of the media industry, which emphasizes wire-service filler over investigative local news coverage, it is increasingly common for New Brunswick news issues to be neglected by the national media. When our own provincial papers are owned by the local mega corporation, it leaves us with limited options to gain another perspective.

Another example from October was coverage of a strike at the Irving-owned sawmill in Chipman, New Brunswick. The CBC headline was "Irving loggers protest wage cut." The story revealed the fact that the management had proposed a 30-per-cent wage cut and was expecting higher productivity from the workers. It included quotes from the workers saying that they couldn't see how they could survive on less money or produce more. Said one saw mill worker: "We're grabbing trees as quick as we can. We can't grab them any quicker."ƒ9 The CBC journalist also provided the viewer with the accurate background information that "Irving companies are well known for their tough battles with striking unions."

However, readers of the Irving papers in Saint John and Moncton didn't get any coverage of the strike at all and those in Fredericton reading the article headlined "Mill Workers Walk Out," learned that the workers earn up to $16.35 an hour, and were told that the issue of contention was "stalled contract negotiations." The coverage of the issue in the Irving papers failed to identify any of the context for the labour dispute and didn't reveal the proposed 30-per-cent wage cut at all.ƒ10

When the 27-month strike at Irving Oil concluded in 1996 with a humiliating defeat for the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union, the company required a process of ideological re-education, which was essentially a means for the company to control the hearts and minds of its now broken labour force. Refinery workers spent two weeks at a local hotel with facilitators from an American consulting firm (and) were required to go through a reorientation agenda which included "venting emotions," "problem people," and participation in a "public declaration." Successful completion of the first week of this program was a prerequisite to being "invited" to week two, which involved "team building" exercises for union members and their former colleagues who crossed the picket lines as well as replacement workers who had been kept on. Week two, in turn, was followed by a practical test at the refinery lasting up to four weeks. Workers were assessed every day and did not get full pay until they passed the entire program.

Returning workers at the refinery said that, in reality, the reorientation program was a combination "bitterness test" and "attitude alteration" exercise. Workers were told that they were misled by their local union and to doubt the credibility of the executives of their national union. Labour observers noted at the time that the Irvings were blacklisting the striking workers and the back-to-work protocol was identified as a "brainwashing" exercise. ƒ11

"Not surprisingly, the words 'brainwashing' and 'blacklisting' of strikers never appeared in the Irving papers' coverage of the strike."

Not surprisingly, the words "brainwashing" and "blacklisting" of strikers never appeared in the Irving papers' coverage of the strike. In contrast, the New Brunswick papers published the names of the 37 striking workers who were fired by the company under the headline "Not welcome at the Refinery."ƒ12 The re-orientation was described as a "back-to-work program" that was a "tough transition" for the men who "failed" and were "told to go home."ƒ13

But it is interesting to note that the Irvings' coverage of the issue was paralleled in the only national newspaper at the time, the Globe and Mail. The paper allowed the Irvings to set the agenda on the tone and coverage of the strike and its unorthodox back-to-work protocol and presented virtually identical coverage to the national audience. It is also interesting to note that the Globe and Mail even avoided covering traditionally newsworthy elements to the story when they followed the Irvings' lead and avoided covering New Brunswick New Democratic Party leader Elizabeth Weir's attention-getting press conference in which she suggested that the N.B. government should call in the Irving Companies' loans if they did not agree to settle the strike. Thus, when the national news media fall into line with the Irvings' account of their own controversies, no one is provided with the range of opinion and perspective that is the heart of informative and independent journalism in a democratic society.

Research on the Irvings' media coverage of their own companies also reveals that the papers routinely publish company press releases as news stories. For example, this month's Saint John Telegraph-Journal contains an article entitled "Refinery Hires 1,000 for Maintenance Project,"ƒ14 which is almost identical to the Irving Oil press release on that topic entitled "1,000 Tradespeople 'Turnaround' Saint John Refinery."ƒ15

The owners of the Irving papers have also been known to actively interfere in the papers' editorial policy. The history of the Irvings' ownership of the media is peppered with stories of journalists forbidden to name the Irvings as the ones responsible for oil spills, of Irving executives forbidden to speak to the press, and a case where the editor of the Saint John paper was denied permission to report that an Irving-owned tugboat had run aground, for fear it would result in an insurance hike for the company.ƒ16 When Neil Reynolds left the Telegraph-Journal in 1995 after a stormy reign as editor, he told reporters that the paper's owner, J.K. Irving, called him every day, telling him what he liked and did not like in the paper.ƒ17

"An incident during the 1997 federal election revealed some insight into the consequences of unsanctioned editorial action at an Irving-owned paper."

An incident during the 1997 federal election revealed some insight into the consequences of unsanctioned editorial action at an Irving-owned paper. In the weeks before the June election, the federal Liberal Party in New Brunswick was in electoral trouble. The province, like the region, was turning against the Chrétien Liberals. A few days before the vote, the Telegraph-Journal took an editorial position in favour of Jean Charest's Progressive Conservatives. J.K. Irving, the eldest of the three Irving brothers, responded by writing a letter, published on the front page on election day, repudiating the editorial, and arguing instead that Canada needed a majority government and that the Liberals had done a good job and deserved another term. (The Irvings, starting with their father, K.C., tended to support the Liberals, and J.K.'s son-in-law, Paul Zed, MP for Fundy Royal, was one of the Liberal incumbents who would go down to defeat later that day, despite J.K.'s efforts.) This case shows that, when the papers' editors took a position in opposition to that of their employer's, they were publicly dressed-down.ƒ18

The papers routinely present the view that what's good for the company is good for the province. When Irving Oil maintained high production levels while replacement workers and management ran the plant during the 1994 refinery strike, the Irving-owned media heralded their accomplishment with laudatory headlines about this boon for New Brunswick's fiscal health. Yet when strikers threaten to initiate a boycott of Irving products, this was proclaimed as a dire threat to the health of the provincial economy.ƒ19

Finally, the Irvings' coverage of their own empire is particularly marked by a strategy of defeatism where those who oppose the company are routinely portrayed as naive, foolish and irrational in their futile effort to challenge the Irvings. Last month's coverage of the closure of the Irving-owned Saint John shipyard and the decertification of five unions reveals examples of this classic response. The Saint John Telegraph-Journal's news coverage and editorial on the story was filled with phrases such as "end of an era," "stalemate," "spin their wheels" and "going nowhere fast." The media stated that the Irvings' compensation package to the union "isn't going to get any better" and "like it or not, we believe they hold all the cards."ƒ20

"Monopoly media in New Brunswick ... gives the giant corporation an unparalleled venue to promote its own interests as well as insulate itself from inquiries and criticism."

A consequence of this discourse of defeatism is that the public "may begin to feel increasingly alienated and disconnected from the civic life of their communities. They may develop a sense that they are without relevant, actionable information and, therefore, powerless to control the course of their own lives."ƒ21

Monopoly media in New Brunswick has resulted in a situation where we are 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. The Irvings control all of the English-language daily papers in the province and now have incursions into the community papers as well, and this gives the giant corporation an unparalleled venue to promote its own interests as well as insulate itself from inquiries and criticism. It would appear that the consolidation and convergence within the monopoly media has undermined our society's formation of a free and independent press and brought us full circle back to a system where freedom of the press is for those who own one.

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The Pathos

New Brunswick Arbitration Ruling

December 2003

Awards to reporter 'a stinging rebuke of Irvings'

Lies, distortions, intrigues, private detectives, a rude and hostile publisher, a not-so-merry medical-go-round, and a poisoned work environment populate the pages of the arbitrator's ruling. It's a disturbing tale of how a media empire can make life sheer hell for the employee who refuses to meekly submit to grossly unfair treatment.

In a "virtually unprecedented" ruling, an arbitrator has found in favour of journalist David against New Brunswick's media Goliath and awarded the type of damages for harassment and mental suffering that normally would be associated with a human rights case.

His legal counsel calls the awards of $5,000 in aggravated damages and $20,000 in punitive damages to Dave Francis, a senior reporter at the Moncton Times & Transcript, "a stinging rebuke of the Irvings."

READ FULL STORY or download ruling at CWA CANADA web site.