August 12, 2002
Interview with Dr. Erin Steuter

I interviewed Dr. Erin Steuter, a professor of Sociology at Mount Allison University, and the author of The Irvings Cover Themselves: Media Representations of the Irving Oil Refinery Strike, 1994-1996. I asked her about the effect of having every english daily paper in New Brunswick owned by the Irving Group, a multi-billion dollar corporate empire spanning oil, timber, paper, and restaraunts that employs approximately one eighth of the New Brunswick workforce.

posted by dru in interview

In your article you mentioned a few instances when the Irving management had publicly dressed down editors or called in every day to discuss the content of the paper. Are there any examples of that happening recently?

I get the impression that the management isn't as directly hands-on now as it used to be -- partly because there is a different era in Irving family leadership, which is why you're seeing this philanthropy -- the dunes project and the nature beach and these sorts of things. I think that the climate is such that [the Irving management] don't have to [watch their papers closely] anymore. My impression from the journalists and the journalistic community is that they know exactly who they work for, and they know what will be accepted and what won't be.

The publishers and editors who are dealing with the journalists everyday are doing a sort of gatekeeping job, and making sure that articles that wouldn't be amenable to the Irving family wouldn't be coming through the pipeline. And there is a lot of self-censorship on the part of the journalists. I haven't heard -- through the people that I have spoken to -- of that kind of direct cutting off of stories. I think that people learned their lessons when they made mistakes and supported the wrong political candidate or came out on the wrong side of some [issue]. The papers are very strongly in line with the Irving family ethos.

A lot of people have said that there is a lot of diversity of coverage and editorial positions between the Irving papers...

I wouldn't say so. I would say that there are some ideological differences within the spectrum. They're all very conservative, but some of them, like the Telegraph-Journal can be called libertarian. But even there, they haven't spent as much time in recent years developing some of those ideological arguments as they have in the past. So I'd say the difference has actually declined in recent years. Sometimes if you track one topic, you can see slight differences, but they're really very homogeneous.

How does the ideology of the owners get all the way down to the reporters? How does that process work?

It starts with the selection of the journalists; the Irvings have been known to hire journalists into the public relations department of the company who have provided sympathetic coverage on Irving issues... they don't always go through the process of hiring journalism school graduates, they are often likely to pick people who show themselves to be hard-working, [who go] after the stories, but know who is paying them.

The journalistic community in Canada is under siege overall because there have been huge layoffs in the last ten years with monopoly ownership and there are [now] much, much higher expectations of productivity. Before, journalists would only post several stories a week, and now they're being asked to post several stories per day, which means that they stories are coming right off the newswires, with possibly an interview or an attempt to clarify or confirm something, but with none of the investigative journalism you would have seen before.

So lots of journalists are out of work and the journalists who have jobs in the Irving group know how lucky they are to be working as journalists. The editors are the ones who tell them what stories they should be working on, and as you get more seniority, you get to pick your stories, but when you pick stories that are critical of your employer, or your employer's generalized values -- even if it's not something specific about your employer -- you're going to be told that you can't work on that, and after a while you stop bringing those stories forward.

I don't see the journalists trying in any way to bring forward critical stories. Sometimes a story will present itself that they have no choice to cover, and they may go and show initiative in showing a broad range of sources. But they have to be careful, because they're not really permitted to bring in a truly broad range of opinion, but sometimes you'll see them bringing in people who are interested in "social harmony" -- someone like a minister or a peace activist or a teacher -- someone who generally says "I wish everybody could get along" or "I wish there wasn't this conflict", and that's about as critical a voice as they would be allowed to bring in. But some of [the reporters] do consistently do that, and that is an implied criticism of whoever is causing the problems, either in terms of the environment, legal battle, or labour struggle.

So you see that the journalists are often waiting for an opportunity to bring in something critical in the context in which they work, and sometimes that's the most that they can do. Occasionally, they'll do something that shows their strong bias towards the Irving perspective, and often the public will recognize it -- oftentimes the public isn't necessarily aware of the control that the Irvings have over the content of the paper, but sometimes [a paper] will do something that's so strongly in their own interests that they'll get a lot of letters to the editor. Of course they don't publish all the letters, but the fact that they do publish some of the letters that are critical of their stance shows that they must have had a bit of an onslaught -- that they needed to show some of that voice coming through.

What effect does having only one [English daily] that covers the entire province have on how the news is covered in New Brunswick?

[The Telegraph-Journal] tends to not have a lot of journalists based outside of the area, so most of their material is coming off of news services... I imagine if someone did an analysis and compared what the coverage [of provincial issues] was compared to other papers, they'd find that it wasn't that different. I would imagine that you wouldn't see as much ideological bias in their national and international coverage, because they're not really constructing those stories. A lot of it is a matter of omission -- they just leave out what is more critical. The columnists are important too -- a lot of the columns get run across all the papers, but there is more of a series of national and international series of opinions in the Telegraph-Journal.

Is Irving really different from other papers of a similar ownership in their hiring and business practices?

They're less different now than they used to be, because the rest of the country has sort of caught up. [The Irvings] had a very tight hands-on control of their journalists before we had Conrad Black on the national scene. Black was very controlling of the junior members of the media, and hired a lot of right-wing columnists and had them run all over the country at his command, and would prevent letters to the editor going in. But he did court the higher-level journalists, paid them a lot of money, and gave them free reign, so there was a bit more range -- even in the papers that were considered to be under the most control nationally.

I don't think that the Irvings make such a distinction between the bread and butter journalist and the highbrow columnist -- I think they're all under pretty tight reign. The [Irving papers'] difference for other papers shows the most locally when something is directly within the Irvings' sphere of influence. If you compare them to the Chronicle Herald, which is an independent paper in Halifax -- and it's not a very good paper, because it's poor, and doesn't have many journalists working for it, and it panders to popular audience approval, because that's is the only thing that keeps it going -- but it is a much, much more critical paper than any of the papers in New Brunswick. Even just at the level of language use, they call things much more directly, and in much more critical terms, and provide coverage of non-controversial issues from a wider range of perspectives -- that's something that you really don't see from the Irving papers. Nationally, we still have good quality papers, despite an overwhelming lean towards the right. Now, with Izzy Aspers', we've seen some high-profile people being fired, in the same way we saw with Conrad Black, but the general impression is that he's not going to be as hands-on as Conrad Black was. So maybe the scene will become more liberal nationally, and then the Irvings will then still stand out as being such a high-control atmosphere.

If New Brunswick had a number of different papers with different owners with similar social standing and ideology, would coverage really be that much different?

I think it would be somewhat different. In general, it would be pro-capitalist, and the value system of the upper class would continue to be reinforced, but you would see some exposÚs of the Irvings. For example, the Irvings are often very critical of the McCains, who are their direct competitors. Now, they have lots of interests in common with the McCains, because they are running a similar-class empire, but they're also their direct competitors, and the only truly deep investigative journalism that you see in the Irving papers is about the McCains. They'll have people following them around, and getting all sorts of sources to put together a really damning exposÚ on the McCains. So if we had more papers across the province who were owned by different capitalists, it would be in their interests at some point to do exposÚs on the Irvings, but it's currently in no one's interest to do that, so it's very rare to see an exposÚ -- especially on environmental issues, because that's not necessarily going to be in the benefit of all the other corporate owners; they would probably sell a lot of papers exposing pollution done by the Irvings.

How could we imagine there being multiple papers with truly different perspectives?

I don't think that the market can handle another paper, and I think that the Irvings would do what they could to prevent anyone else coming in as a competitor. There is the possibility of a weekly paper showing itself to be a critical source of information.

Are there any recent examples of that?

Sometimes you get a specific community who has a specific issue. I'm not sure what the name of the paper is in the community around the Mets (?) hog farm, but we're starting to see a lot more investigation into that issue that we would normally see in a local paper. Unfortunately, the Irvings are centered in the larger areas, like Saint John, where people have some pretty strong feelings about the Irvings, but they don't normally have an outlet for them. There's also the internet. The environmentalists are probably the ones who could have enough of a community who would be interested in following things and putting them together, so they could have a watchdog site where they could keep track of these issues. Right now, the Irvings are being pretty low-key, and it would be pretty obvious if they made any attempt to shut something like that down.

One thing that's important is that most people actually don't know that all the papers are owned by the Irvings. That's one of the reasons that they sometimes try to present themselves as having a range of views, but if you look at them closely, that range of views is all within the same spectrum. I think that people really are quite unaware, for the most part, that all of their papers are coming from the same source.

What kind of tactics could the Irvings use to stop a paper from publishing critical reports?

They have control over some distribution, and they are one of the major sources of the actual paper and printing, and they have used their legal team extensively to sue people who have challenged them. In some cases they have spent outrageous amounts of money in order to silence someone, in order to set the precedent, which they then use in future cases. I haven't seen that happen in the media sector of their work, but I seen cases where they have done that in other parts of the Irving empire.

What is an example of that?

There was a case -- I think it had to do with a company called Saint John Tugboat -- but there is a law professor at the University of Moncton named Michele Caron who followed that very closely. She was following the case very closely because it got a lot of attention in the legal community because of the amount of money the Irvings spent against a very small company, but it turned out that they needed to do that to set a precedent for future cases.

Are there any recent analyses of the Irving's control over their media holdings?

Besides mine, I've never seen anything.

Any idea what that might mean?

I think people would prefer a more amenable group, because the Irvings don't comment even in their own papers about situations that are going on that affect their companies, and they certainly don't give interviews.

[gap in tape]

When Canada as a whole starts to get interested in monopoly ownership, they start to recognize that we've had [the case of the Irvings] for a long time. But I also think that interest is declining in monopoly ownership issues. It's been on the scene academically for ten years now in a very strong way, and I think that people were kind of tired out of following the case of Conrad Black and the Aspers had a brief moment this summer, but [tight control] doesn't seem to be generally their style. People who are interested in looking at differential media coverage are now into the Palestinian/Israel situation and terrorism, which is what I did all my earlier research on, so I'm back in vogue again. When I see people doing media analysis articles, or when I'm asked to review other people's articles, that's people are interested in now, and their not so much interested in commercialism.

Are there any kind of media reform efforts or proposed legislation in New Brunswick?


None at all? Not even pie-in-the-sky proposals?

No. Occasionally there will be some kind of movement to have an investigation into ownership again, since we have a tradition of having that done, but it would be some opposition politician who would mention it briefly. Nobody wants to take that on; the public don't consider it to be an issue. People feel that because the Irvings don't try to have a monopoly on national news, that they are already buying two papers, a local paper and a national paper, I don't know of anyone who has taken it on in New Brunswick.

Would there be any possibility of that happening...

I don't think so.

...or do you think that the Irving's control of the coverage of elections keeps people away from the issue?

Yeah, I think the politicians in power, and those who think they have access to power don't want to mess with the Irvings on any front, and the media front is probably at the bottom of the list. They might be prepared to say that they need to put in more scrubbers [in Irving factories] because they're polluting our air, and they might say that [the government] shouldn't be lending them as much money, and giving away our crown lands to them, but that's as radical a critique as they're prepared to make. There's way to strong a sense that the Irvings employ so many New Brunswickers, and they always threaten that they'll just pack up and leave -- which realistically they are not going to do -- but they have a very positive climate towards them, and many New Brunswickers are supportive of that. Even if they have personal horror stories around the Irvings, they also know that they're not going to bite the hand that feeds them.

So it's very hard to find people who will come forward, and the people who have come forward have been so horrendously blasted, that they're basically seen examples. Like someone you see hanging from the gates of the castle -- it says "this will happen to you too."

What are some examples of that?

That pretty much happened with the labour leadership in the strike at the oil refinery. The entire union executive lost their jobs, and were made into complete pariahs in the community for having had the temerity to challenge the Irvings in that way. Their names were published in the paper, and there was this overwhelming process of humiliation. The people who wanted to get their jobs back had to go through this whole humiliating brainwashing exercise in order to have access to those jobs, which sent a signal through the entire Irving empire.

That actually caught some attention on the national scene, because that was considered to be very extreme, but some people would say it was also very effective. The Irving shipyards, which employed a lot more people than the Irving refinery didn't make any fuss when their contract came up, and they had a very negative contract, but people had seen what had happened at the refinery.

Wouldn't it be in the interest of some independent or NDP politician who is running on a long shot to come up with a comprehensive critique and draw attention to [media concentration] as an election issue?

I don't think so. I think that when politicians talk to New Brunswick voters, those people have certain issues which they're prepared to hear criticism of the Irvings on, like environmental issues -- but there are so many issues, that media ownership isn't up there, so I don't see anyone taking that on. In fact, it would be my advice to them that it would be naive to take them, because that not the will of the people right now; it's not what they're concerned about.

So you don't think that this is anything that could conceivably change in the future?

I think that people are doing an end run around the Irving papers for real information. In general, the mainstream media is being tarred as being the voice of the corporate world, and the people who want more information know how to get it, and those are the kind of people who would be critical of the narrow media coverage. But they're not affected by it so much because they can get alternative information on the internet very quickly. And that's improving by the day, with lots of people coalescing information and people getting together and sharing stories. I think it's the people who don't know that they need other sources of information who are in trouble, because they don't really realize that there's a whole other perspective out there. But that's not their priority, they're not even necessarily aware of the hegemony in the media. They feel that a small controversy that comes up in the paper shows that the paper has diversity as opposed to how much it's all really in the same narrow view.

I think people have been taken back a little by the indymedia that's been on the web. I think people need to wait and see what's going to happen with that. I think the sites have been a little bit unprofessional until recently to the eye of someone who is a professional journalist -- but even if you check back every couple of weeks, the material is better organized, better presented, and more careful with its sourcing, which cuts down the chances of having erroneous information.