Headlines, Human Rights, North America, Press Freedom

CANADA: Upstart Paper Cracks Irving Media Monopoly

Chris Arsenault

HALIFAX, Nov 7 2007 (IPS) - For more than two years, the Irvings – the 129th richest family in the world, with interests in energy, construction, forestry and transportation – owned every single English language newspaper and magazine in the Canadian province of New Brunswick.

In 2006, a Canadian senate report called the Irving monopoly a “media-industrial complex that dominates the province.”

That total dominance ended on Oct. 30, when, after a court overruled an Irving attempt to halt its publication, the first issue of the Carleton Free Press hit news stands.

“I’m just a guy who wants to serve his community,” William Kenneth Langdon, the independent paper’s publisher, told IPS. But observers around New Brunswick are casting Langdon and his newspaper as a symbol of something more powerful.

“David fought Goliath and David won,” said Erin Steuter, a professor at Mount Saint Allison University who has studied New Brunswick’s media monopoly. “The Irvings lost this latest battle about crushing the alternative publication,” Dr. Steuter told IPS.

The battle over the Carleton Free Press started on Sep. 27, when a team of four forensic accountants hired by CanadaEast News Inc., a media holding company owned by the Irving family, barged into Langdon’s home in Woodstock, New Brunswick, a small town of about 5,300 people.

Under a little known criminal code provision related to industrial espionage, the private agents scoured Langdon’s residence. “They even rooted through my wife’s lingerie drawer,” Langdon told IPS.

Days before the search, citing a poor relationship with his immediate supervisor, Langdon had resigned his post as publisher of the Bugle-Observer, a paper owned by the Irvings, where he had worked for four years. In his resignation letter, Langdon expressed his intent to start a new paper.

“During my last weeks in the employ of the Irvings, I consulted with a lawyer who advised me that I had grounds for a constructive dismissal suit,” wrote Langdon in the Carleton Free Press’ first editorial. “Subsequently I sent to my home files that I could use as part of that suit.”

The Irvings allege those files contained confidential commercial information. They were able to secure a court injunction to search Langdon’s home while attempting to block the publication of the Carleton Free Press.

Victor Mlodecki, vice president of Brunswick News Inc. and Langdon’s former boss, issued a statement in early October saying that the Irvings welcome competition in the newspaper business.

On Nov. 2, Justice Peter Glennie of the province’s top court blocked the Irvings’ request to halt the publication the Carleton Free Press, while prohibiting Langdon from using confidential Brunswick News information.

The new competition was welcomed by some unlikely sources. “In this province, the Irvings are connected to their monopoly in the forestry sector,” Jeannot Volpe, leader of New Brunswick’s Conservative Party, the official opposition, told IPS.

“I’ve been to events concerning this sector with hundreds of people which no one from the Irving papers covered. People are starting to get frustrated: how is our voice going to be heard if the media won’t report the message?” said Volpe, whose party normally takes the side of big business.

The Irving family’s fortune is valued at 5.9 billion dollars and its 300 companies directly employ eight percent of New Brunswick’s 750,000 residents, according to figures from Kim Kierans, director of the journalism school at the University of King’s College in Halifax. The Irving companies are private firms, rather than publicly traded companies, so their internal information isn’t reported.

“The whole idea of freedom of the press implies that media are a check on powerful economic interests,” Isabel Macdonald, the communications director for the New York-based media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, told IPS. “When the media are incorporated into a powerful monopoly, it’s very disturbing.”

While media rights activists are hopeful about the Carleton Free Press, Irving still dominates the province’s public sphere. The company has big plans in the works, including a seven-billion-billion dollar oil refinery and a new liquefied natural gas facility and pipeline in the city of Saint John.

These mega-projects have raised the ire of environmentalists who say the province should be decreasing rather than increasing its production of greenhouse gases. “There is no credible reporting by anyone who understands the science behind these proposals,” said Inka Milewski, science advisor to the Conservation Council of New Brunswick.

“There is no credible capacity of any Irving media outlets to cover these stories,” Milewski told IPS.

“Media concentration is worse in Canada than in other industrialised countries – and in New Brunswick, way worse,” Robert Picard, a U.S. media economics expert, told a 2003 conference in Moncton, New Brunswick.

According to 2003 figures from Enn Raudsepp, head of Concordia University’s journalism programme in Montreal, 84 percent of Canadian media is owned by five companies.

As of 2005, one company, CanWest Global, owned by the Asper family, accounted for 28.5 percent of total daily newspaper circulation in Canada.

HERE Magazine, a tabloid style weekly, was New Brunswick’s sole independent English language publication up until 2004, when the Irvings opened a competing “alternative” weekly called the Metro Marquee. While HERE had been publishing successfully for four years, the independent publication couldn’t compete with the ad rates of the new Irving competitor and HERE’s owners were forced to sell out to the monopoly rather than face financial ruin.

The Irvings closed down the Marquee upon purchasing HERE and changed the paper from a staff-driven organisation to a freelance model, with most writers receiving 25 dollars per article.

On Oct. 18, HERE Magazine, an Irving owned weekly which bills itself as “New Brunswick’s Urban Voice”, ran a cover story titled “Why not choose natural gas?” HERE normally requires its cover stories to be at least 1,000 words; the natural gas cover clocked in at 302. The article, which reads like a press release from a natural gas company, ran without listing its author, which also violates the magazine’s normal guidelines.

“The Irvings sometimes just run press releases as their own stories,” said Dr. Steuter. With citizens debating the merits of Irving’s proposed natural gas pipeline, Steuter doubts the story was a coincidence.

“Time and time again we have seen that the media are really not very good at reporting on their corporate owners,” said F.A.I.R.’s Isabel Macdonald. “If the corporate owners are the biggest player in the province’s economy, that’s a real problem from the standpoint of the public’s right to know.”

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