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January 10, 2008

An Inside Look at the Irvings

An Inside Look at the Irvings
Chris Arsenault. Canadian Dimension. Winnipeg: Jan/Feb 2008. Vol. 42,
Iss. 1; pg. 33, 4 pgs

Leland Thomas doesn't want a natural-gas pipeline to destroy a natural
park near his home in Saint John, New Brunswick.

For the last year, the retired veterinarian and a group of Saint Johners
calling themselves the "Friends of Rockwood Park" have been organizing
public forums, petition drives and meetings with their political
representatives to oppose the proposed pipeline, which they say would
cause environmental problems along with ruining some of the city's only
green space.

But the Friends of Rockwood Park are in a bind; they're having a hard
time communicating their message to the public because every
English-language daily newspaper in New Brunswick is owned by Irving
family interests - the same people proposing the pipeline.

The Only Show in Town

Along with the newspapers, the Irving family, valued at u.s. $5.9
billion and ranked 129th on the Forbes magazine billionaires list in
2007, owns more than 300 companies in the province with interests in
forestry, construction, food processing, transportation, energy
refining, retail and distribution.

"I don't know anywhere else where a corporation owns everything," Leland
Thomas told Canadian Dimension. "I don't know anywhere else where one
company, one family, has this kind of dominance on the business world."

The Irving group of companies directly employs around eight per cent of
the province's 750,000 residents, according to figures from Kim Kierans,
director of the journalism school at the University of King's College in
Halifax.

Brunswick News, the holding company for the Irvings' media interests,
employs some 650 people and, with the exception of three weekly papers
the Saint Croix Courier, the Sackville Tribune Post and the recently
opened Carleton Free Press - the company owns all provincial newspapers.
This includes the three largest English-language dailies located in
Moncton, St. John and Fredericton, along with eleven English weeklies,
seven French week lies and a significant radio and Internet presence.

Don't Bite the Hand that Feeds You

In 2006, the Senate Committee on Transport and Communications issued a
damning report on the Irvings' monopoly, stating: "This situation is, as
far as the Committee could determine, unique for developed countries."

According to Erin Steuter, a professor at Mount Allison University
in Sackville, who has studied the monopoly, "Journalists know not to
bite the hand that feeds them and anything critical of the employer is
considered completely unacceptable."

The Irvings' monopoly, or "media-industrial complex," to quote the
Senate report, has become such a lightning rod for controversy, even the
provincial Conservative party - hardly an enemy of big business - is
speaking out.

"The Grandson of the Irving family [Jamie Irving] is now running the
Saint John Telegraph-Journal" said Conservative leader Jeannot Volpe in
an interview with cd. "The Irvings are proposing some major projects in
the city and now there is a direct link between the family and the
industrial base," said Mr. Volpe, adding that New Brunswick is unique in
having a media monopoly directly attached to an industrial empire.

Along with the natural-gas pipeline set to destroy Rockwood Park, the
Irvings are proposing a new, $7-billion oil refinery for Saint John. The
new refinery, with a capacity of 300,000 barrels per day, would increase
industrial emissions in New Brunswick by 25 per cent, making it
impossible for the province to meet its Kyoto targets. The editorial
boards of all three Irving city dailies support the project.

Inka Milewski, science advisor to the Conservation Council of New
Brunswick, thinks a lack of reporters who understand the science of
climate change is the biggest problem with coverage of the proposed
refinery in Irving papers. She doesn't believe there are direct orders
from Irving family members demanding reporters slate coverage in favour
of the project. Editors certainly choose to support the new refinery out
of free will. However, it is unlikely those editors would have been
given their positions had they held differing views. Like other
observers, Milewski thinks, "there is no capacity for Irving media
outlets to really dig into these issues."

A Media Culture of Self-Censorship

This isn't to say coverage in Irving newspapers is completely static or
monolithic: the Moncton Times and Transcript runs a decent column by
Ginette Petitpas-Taylor, chairperson of the New Brunswick Advisory
Council on the Status of Women; the excellent Janice Harvey spins a
weekly piece for the Saint John Telegraph-Journal and the Fredericton
Daily Gleaner syndicates Gwynne Dyer. But when it comes to covering the
vast and often controversial Irving Empire, Irving papers simply aren't
up to the task.

"Time and time again, we have seen that the media are really not very
good at reporting on their corporate owners," said Isabel Macdonald,
spokesperson for the New York-based watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in
Reporting (FAIR). Macdonald cites an example when nbc News was planning
a story on consumer boycotts: "an organizer was asked [by an NBC
reporter] to name the largest boycott going on today; and it was against
General Electric - NBC'S parent company." When this news came out, "the
NBC producer said 'we can't do that' and the network dropped the story,"
Macdonald told CD.

Irving dominance over New Brunswick dates back to 1924, when the family
patriarch, K.C Irving, bought his first gas station in Saint John; K.C. owned a station in Bouctouche NB prior to entering the St. John market, but most observers consider the St. John station the beginning. From there, K.C. built up a network for business, striving for full-spectrum industrial and commercial dominance.

Today the empire includes:IrvingOilLtd.,J.D.Irving Ltd., Midland Transport,
Kent Building Supplies, Ocean Steel and, of course, Brunswick News.

The Irving companies are privately held, not publicly traded like most
major corporations, so information on their activities is more difficult
to obtain. In the fashion of law-abiding gangsters, the Irvings use
their media muscle to exert dominance and attain profit on behalf of
family. And sometimes, they financially and politically bludgeon their
enemies in broad daylight.

[HERE] Magazine: Case Study in Corporatism

On October 18, 2007, [HERE] Magazine (the Irving-owned New Brunswick
equivalent to Toronto's NOW and Vancouver's Georgia Straight) hit a new
low - even for a rag. The magazine (where this reporter used to work as
a columnist), with a circulation of about 37,000 in Saint John, Moncton
and Fredericton, ran a cover story entitled, "Why not choose natural
gas?" The story broke all of [HERE]'s own style guidelines. It was
ghostwritten, whilst all their other stories had author bylines.
Moreover, it clocked it at 302 words; according to the magazine's
editorial guidelines, the low limit for a cover story is 1,000 words.

The story reads like a 1950s advertisement for nuclear power or
something hosted by The Simpsons' Troy McClure. "Ever wonder where
natural gas comes from?" asks the opening sentence. Oh, please, do tell!
Apparently, "The history of natural gas extends to the ancient peoples
of Greece, Persia and India." It's always good to keep literary
infomercials in their historical context. The article only quotes one
person: the marketing manager for Enbridge Gas New Brunswick.

"The Irvings just run press releases as their own stories," said Dr.
Steuter.

And, as for [HERE]'s hard-hitting conclusion, well, the media-relations
professional lets the reader decide: "Why not consider natural gas, an
environmentally friendly fuel?" The Irvings are, of course, trying to
build more natural-gas pipelines and a new liquefied natural-gas (LNG)
terminal.

No Sex, Please: We're New Brunswickers

[HERE] had been an alternative magazine, a youthful - often lousy - mix
of piss and cider vinegar up until 2004, when the Irvings forced it to
sell out. Initially based only in Saint John, the publishers tried to
move into the Moncton market. That's when the Irvings started the Metro
Marquee.

"I got brought on as a sex columnist at the Marquee when they opened to
compete with [HERE]," said Heather Narduzzi in an interview. When the
Metro Marquee started generating some ad revenue, Narduzzi says the
Irving family took a closer look at the paper's content. The Metro
Marquee was terminated in favor of [HERE]'s brand once the Irvings took
control of both papers on October 28, 2004.

"My editor, Alec Bruce, called me to his office and showed me a memo,
which he said came directly from the Irving family themselves," Narduzzi
told CD. "My editor read out the subject: 'Platonic Relationships.
Please have Heather switch her column IMMEDIATELY to a relationship
column. Not sex. No more sex. Think celibate!'"

From a purely business perspective, it would make sense for [HERE] to
publish a sex columnist; the irreverent and informative musings of
syndicated fancy-pants Dan Savage are the only reason many people pick
up these sorts of "urban weeklies." But the Irvings know they have no
competitors in this or other markets, so they don't have to dilute their
social conservatism to cater to customers.

Narduzzi quit after that meeting with her editor. "I decided not to
write about relationships, because I would be talking out of my ass,"
she says.

Like a virgin version of Michael Corleone in The Godfather, the Irvings
made Ms. Narduzzi an offer she couldn't refuse.

Serving the Customer or "Getting Served"?

According to Harvey Sawler, a biographer who croons for the Irvings like
someone on their payroll, the family has done so well because they
always, always, put the customer first: "Look after the customer and
they'll look after you," was said to be the mantra K.C Irving stamped
into the organization's corporate culture. When it comes to New
Brunswick's media, the customer is perpetually stuck at the back of the
restaurant, but there's nowhere else to eat in town.

"The public is getting frustrated with this monopoly," said Conservative
leader Volpe. "How are citizens expected to have their voices heard if
the media doesn't want to hear the message?"

While Canada's Senate, the provincial Conservative party and a host of
academics, commentators and citizens have railed against the monopoly,
no one has done anything much about it. And, as for the friends of
Rockwood Park, "we've been stopped," said Thomas. The gas pipeline will
proceed.


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