November 23, 2014
#59 The Family That Owns New Brunswick
The Irvings are secretive billionaires who have a monopoly on New Brunswick's news media. Journalist Jacques Poitras, author of Irving vs Irving, describes how the family subtly suppresses criticism and destroys competitors.

Episode Rundown

[00:00:21] “A journalist disaster zone, that is what a Senate Commission called New Brunswick when they were investigating media monopolization. Why would they describe the province that way? Because of the Irving family. If you have never heard of the Irving family than the Irving family is pretty happy about that. They are a low-key family despite the fact that they are the third wealthiest family in Canada. They are billionaires, They are the fifth largest landowner in the U.S(sixth actually). Their empire spans energy, forestry, trucking, construction, real estate and media. They basically own the print media in New Brunswick and they run their media monopoly like no other press baron family you’ve heard of. At one point, they seriously suggested that their newsroom staff all wear uniforms like the employees at their gas stations, as it would be sort of a moral building, team building exercise. That plan never came to fruition but I think that gives you a little bit of an idea of how they operate. But the truth is, it is very hard to get a bigger picture on how they operate because as I mention they are very low-key, they are very private, their holdings are private, they don’t have to disclose anything to shareholders. And they have been for decades, for generations of Irvings kind of impenetrable to journalists. They don’t really give a lot of access but that has not stopped journalist and author Jacques Poitras from thoroughly researching and investigating the Irving’s for his book Irving vs Irving. He got limited access to some of the family before they cut him off but a lot of his knowledge of the family comes from the fact that he worked at an Irving family newspaper, The Saint John Telegraph Journal for six years. These days he is the provincial affairs reporter for CBC news in New Brunswick and Jacques Poitras will join me in a moment.” Jesse

[00:02:46] “It doesn’t show up in any Google rankings. No, it’s paywalled to the max. I can’t think on a national scale something that compares to what they own and influence on a provincial or regional scale.” Poitras

[00:03:07] “It’s the most solid paywall I’ve read of. No free articles” Jesse

“No metre.” Poitras

“No metre.” Jesse

“No cap.” Poitras

“And no social media indexing at all. It’s like North Korean. It’s like the hermit province of New Brunswick.” Jesse

[00:03:58] “This became a big issue in June when the guy was on the loose in Moncton after shooting those cops. And people were going to the newspapers site for basic information, like is the curfew lifted? Is it safe to go out on the streets?” Poitras

“Is there a madman on my street shooting people? Sorry 99 cents for a free trials.” Jesse

[00:04:20] “There was a back and forth debate about if they should lift the paywall as the New York Times has done for Hurricane Sandy. They lift the paywall for 48 hours so people can get basic survival information. And in this case it’s still not clear to me. I’ve heard differing things about whether they chose not to or whether the software they use that they use to run their paywall doesn’t allow it. Because the Irvings are pretty frugal and they would buy the least expensive and least flexible pay-wall app out there.” Poitras

[00:06:35] “So future of news, everybody who’s listening who wanted to figure out how we are going to save this news business. Eliminate every other  newspaper or news organization and then you can charge what you want.” Jesse

[00:07:24] “They are the biggest private sector employer in the province.” Poitras

[00:07:38] “Their refinery accounts for more than half of the providence’s exports, so they’re big…There is a couple of comparisons. You can think of John D Rockefeller in the U.S a 100 plus years ago, except he didn’t own the media. You can compare it to Pierre Karl Peladeau in Quebec and his media holdings, but he doesn’t own all this industry and there is competition for his media organization in the Quebec market.” Poitras

[00:08:26] “Why are they in the newspaper business? Why do they care about media?” Jesse

“Well it began with K.C Irving who was the founder of the empire. The companies in the 1920’s and 30’s. The feeling, the consensus seems to be that he started buying up the newspapers because he didn’t want anyone coming into the market. Because if anyone else came into the market, they would be scrutinizing his companies.” Poitras

[00:09:00] “Now in the 70’s and 80’s the story is his three sons were so spooked by the two federal investigations and the attempted prosecution that they really did not know what to do with these newspapers. They didn’t want to sell them. But they were scared that the federal government would regulate newspaper ownership at one point if they stepped out of line. So they really did step back and not meddle in them. I believe that, but that didn’t necessarily mean that they were doing good journalism cause then they had editors and publishers who kind of not disposed to crusading investigative journalism in place. So the newspapers were kind of average and still didn’t really scrutinize the Irving company. So it was kind of the same net effect in the end.” Poitras

[00:10:12] “There is a quote from a Globe and Mail article on this in the last 60’s where it quotes one guy in the newsroom saying, let’s be careful here guys we don’t want the Irving boys coming coming down and interfering with the newsroom.” Poitras

[00:11:08] So there was an editor for a couple of years in 89-90 who commissioned a big investigative series on pollution in the Bay of Fundy and it really pointed the finger at the Irving companies. There was a big map that showed the pulp mill and the paper mill and how many tons of sludge were pouring out of them into the Bay of Fundy, and that was very admirable. He eventually left. And in the 90’s I worked there for a time. Neil Reynolds decided to publish the story of K.C Irving will and his offshore trust account on the front page. So things like that would happen but depending on what the editor stuck around or not, it wouldn’t last.” Poitras

[00:11:47] “The illustration that I think best shows this problem right now is this splitting up of the companies. I mean there’s been this terrible internal dispute within the family that has led to the Irving empire being broken in two essentially.” Poitras

“The Patriarch died.” Jesse

“Yes, there were disagreements between his sons and his grandchildren … And there were things about the companies that were no longer compatible. So around 2005-2006 they made a decision to disentangle everything. This brother would run these things, that brother would run those things. And this involved offshore trusts in Bermuda. And hundreds of millions of dollars and everything. And none of it was in the newspapers.” Poitras

[00:12:45] “Over a period of six or seven years, the largest corporate presence in the providence transformed itself into two companies from one and there was no analysis of this in the paper. There was no journalistic exploration. There was no look at who ran what company. There was one item that appeared the day after the Globe and Mail actually broke the story of the Irving split and it was you know Irving said it’s business as usual and that was it.” Poitras

[00:13:40] “There was a Here magazine, that was an alternative weekly that started in St John, 2000/2001 that was started by a former Telegraph Journal reporter who just thought, let’s publish something for the young demographic. Not just listings and not just advertorials but actually coverage of city hall but with a youthful take. Your basic generic alt weekly. And so he started it and it was doing alright and then he decided to launch an addition in Moncton and it was at that point that Brunswick News started a competing quote unquote alt weekly. And gobbled a lot of the ad market. And all of sudden Here’s numbers were declining fast. They went looking for investors and the guy who was running it has said in the past that no-one wanted to invest in it because they knew that when the Irvings are sort of entering the arena against you, that it’s a losing battle because the depth of their resources, the depth of their money. So eventually they had to make the decision to sell the thing to the Irving newspaper company, and Here became kind of a bland generic listing advertorial kind of product.” Poitras

[00:15:13] “Never in the portfolio as a huge money makers but as propaganda either directly report the interests and support the interests of its owners or just to prevent other voices from getting out there. And that’s all well and good. You can do what you want in a free market, you can start a paper, you can charge what you want and say what you want in it. But when we can actually see the direct relationship of them keeping other media out. There is a cautionary tale for everyone there.” Jesse

[00:15:43] “There’s a guy, Charles Thériault who puts videos analyzing the forestry industry online. In Saint John, there is a Zine now. An old analogue Zine published called Hard Times in the Maritimes. which looks at people having a hard time in Saint John’s.” Poitras

“Like a photocopy zine?” Jesse

“Yes.” Poitras

[00:16:43] “I interviewed Jim Irving and J.K Irving and he said during the interview, we don’t want the guys down there raising hell. And to other editors said we don’t want a maverick down there, we don’t want a cowboy, we want a flavour that’s spicy but not hot. We are in business for New Brunswick and we want the papers to be for New Brunswick.” Poitras

[00:17:22] “And Jamie Irving, his son who runs the paper directly actually said in an interview which I quote. A newspaper can be a  great cheer leader, can help everybody in the community get rowing in the same direction.” Poitras

[00:18:35] “This was in 1997, the editorial board ran an editorial endorsing the PC party in the federal election. And J.K Irving, that was on a saturday. On monday, the morning of the vote had a front page letter to the editor saying I disagree with the editorial board, I think the Chretien government, the Liberal government is one the right track eliminating the deficit.” Poitras

[00:19:38] “I think it the 80’s during the free trade debate. I think the Ottawa Citizen did something similar where the editorial board came out against free trade. Then the publisher who basically was representing the owners of the paper published something in response saying the company believes free trade is good.” Poitras

[00:19:59] “And why I say they are disingenuous in saying hey look we just want you to be a booster for the province. Is because in your interview with the Irvings about that, they basically admitted that was not so much what they thought was right for Canada but they were this close to some sort of massive deal.” Jesse

“Then he sort of stopped himself from getting into that discussion in sort of in mid-sentence.” Poitras

“And you were cut off from further access and then in fact a memo was circulated that no one. No journalist was to speak with you.” Jesse

“Ok, well I just want to get the order right. I went back to them about the interview months later to ask a bunch of clarifications. I wasn’t cut off as a result of that point. I went back to them months after the interview and said look in the course of the rest of my research. These other questions have come up. I had a list of twenty things. Some of was about the company, some about the family. At that point they felt I was going into territory they weren’t happy with and they cut me off. The memo to the reporters happened even before the interview. When I asked for an interview with Jamie Irving who runs the paper day to day. He said no and that memo went out to the newsroom saying just to reminder we don’t talk on behalf of the company to outside publications.” Poitras

[00:21:49] “Journalists are always trying to get employees of organizations they are covering to talk…I would of loved for some of them to talk to me. But no luck and you know what I know a lot of them. I mean I worked side by side with them in the press gallery in New Brunswick covering the government and I knew they would get in big trouble if they talked to me and I didn’t want to do that.” Poitras

[00:24:03] “The last big exposé of a Canadian press baron may have been Bruce Livesey about Conrad Black, The Thieves of Bay Street. And Conrad Black sued him and sued his publisher. Sued him for libel for publishing testimony from his trial where in he was convicted, a felony conviction. There were lines in the testimony that were quoted in this book that were then subject well that’s libelous…It’s a suit that I can’t imagine Conrad Black has any chance of hell of winning but it’s is a incredibly effective slap to the publisher and an incredibly expensive case to fight. And I’ve heard from people in the publishing business that since then. The relatively low level of money you’re going to generate from a memoir of powerful families of Canada. Than the appetite for running tell alls or exposés or anything that could be constructed as vaguely negative to powerful Canadians.” Jesse

[00:30:22] “Is there an open conversation among your colleagues there of look let’s direct ourselves to the things that are not getting talked about. Let’s pick up the slack.” Jesse

“Well I’m not going to speak for my colleagues but you know, the Irvings are a huge story in New Brunswick. This year we’ve covered this decision by the province to give them these wood targets, these wood allocations that they want from public land. And we’ve covered that thoroughly.” Poitras

“Coverage of environmental stuff with the Irving family. How has that played out in their papers?” Jesse

“It’s funny, because this is the nuance I try to get across in the book. Sometimes stories are covered and some time they are not. Over the years when nuance the story is so out there that it couldn’t be ignored it was covered. And other times that don’t show up. There was an incident with a Heron nest that showed up and was damaged by Irving logging operations, that they didn’t pay much attention to. One of the things that happens is that sometimes it’s not whether it’s covered or not, it’s the emphasis. There is an example in the book about a problem with one of the mills and there was a coating of wood dust city one day but because a problem with the filter. Well the paper covers that because they can’t not cover it. On the other hand, there were questions once about why they weren’t covering pollution in the Bay of Fundy. We need something to react to, we need a protest or something.” Poitras

[00:33:01] They did this big enterprise series on the Bay of Fundy and they went to the Department of the Environment and they asked for the stats. How much effluent is gushing out of these pipes into the Bay of Fundy. And the Department of Environment turned over this states which were thousand upon thousands of milliliters of gunk going into the ecosystem. That’s not advocacy journalism, that’s reporting. That is saying here is something that is happening. And we didn’t just sit back and wait for it to hit us in the face. We went and asked the question.” Poitras

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