Bruce Livesey’s reporting has earned him a first ever NNA for a digital outlet, and two NMA noms.

This story was funded by the J-Source Patreon campaign

By Steph Wechsler

Bruce Livesey’s interest in the east coast tycoons of oil, forestry and media was first piqued when he ran into Jacques Poitras’ book Irving vs. Irving on a bookstore shelf. At the time, Energy East was in the news and little reporting had been done on the family’s involvement with the pending pipeline, so Livesey picked up a copy and put a pitch together.

Since then, the investigative reporter for the National Observer and book author has continued to cover what he offers may be “the most ignored corporate family by the media” His National Observer series recently earned him the first ever National Newspaper Award for a digital-first outlet. But it is his piece “Company Province, Provincial Company” in Report on Business Magazine that has earned him two nominations at the 40th National Magazine Awards for long-form feature writing and investigative reporting.

These accounts of the Irvings illustrate what can happen when no one intervenes to quell what one of Livesey’s sources named “corporatism run amok,” a quagmire that resonates with people not just in the Irvings’ Maritime backyard, but around the country.

While, at least by Livesey’s estimation, few outlets are covering them as regularly and as critically as necessary, he is now well-versed in what it takes to conduct award-winning investigations into the New Brunswick family that owns a province.

“The gift that keeps on giving”

For such a treasure trove of investigative fodder, Livesey doesn’t have much competition. What he characterizes as the “demise of the democratic state” is comprised of a multi-pronged energy and media dynasty that receives so many grants and tax subsidies, that has a history of stashing assets in offshore tax havens – further dramatically lowering their taxes – and control so much of the provincial economy that the government is relatively toothless in regulating their operations.

“In an age where corporations are becoming too big and too powerful and nobody’s doing anything about it, the story of the Irvings is one of what happens when nobody does anything about it,” he said.

Between their influence on energy projects in the Maritimes (they’re responsible for 100 million barrels of imported oil per year, are vocal proponents of Energy East, and, according to Livesey, “the New Brunswick government does whatever the Irvings want”), dominion over its news (they own all three daily English newspapers in New Brunswick and several other small papers and radio stations) and volatile interpersonal dynamics, their newsworthiness is seemingly limitless.

But “by the way, nobody fucking reports about them,” said Livesey, based in Toronto.

He credits some east coast CBC reporters with doing good work keeping up with the Irvings’ businesses. But given that they employ the vast majority of the province’s journalists, New Brunswick’s local media isn’t well-positioned to report back to its readers.

As a result, angles to cover them with are more or less ripe for the taking. And the appetite for these stories surely exists, both from the New Brunswick residents beholden to their influence on their province’s industries, and the journalists who want to see these stories published and supported.

“The response has been overwhelmingly positive,” said Livesey, of the letters and feedback he’s received for his National Observer series.

“The Irvings are such a deadening weight on the life of the province, (readers and local journalists) really want the story to come out to a wider audience.”

“It’s not rocket science”

Naturally one of the primary concerns approaching stories like these is the chill of potential lawsuits. As few outlets are equipped to cover stories like these, fewer still are positioned to defend themselves against one of North America’s largest landowners, should they decide to sue.

But Livesey seems confident he shouldn’t worry too much.

“The funny thing is that big corporations will hire law firms to send you nasty letters” – he’s received a few alluding to the “legal remedies” they can access should he not desist – “but they’ll never fucking sue you.”

Since the Irving companies are private, if they filed a lawsuit, they would have to go through discovery, a process in which the defendant and their council would get access to all their internal documents.

“That’s Christmas for us,” said Livesey.

“If you’re writing well-researched, fair journalism that happens to be very critical of them and you’ve got the research to back it up, then there’s nothing you have to worry about,” said Livesey.

Fallen to 22nd

Livesey has had success researching the Irvings from a distance and acknowledges instances of tenacious coverage elsewhere. But Canada has a predicament, he said. The financial crisis in journalism has direct parallels to a lack of corporate reporting – especially about the oil industry – in more ways than one.

Despite its best efforts, the CBC has been “gutted and disemboweled and worked over,” said Livesey. “That’s the most cowed institution in Canada, and that is the role of the public broadcaster – to do these sorts of stories that nobody else will do.”

But the public broadcaster is hamstrung by their own mandate, he said. Wide-context and critical journalism, particularly of the energy sector, would be considered too subjective, said Livesey.

Meanwhile, other institutional media isn’t picking up the slack.

“The private sector media depends on the (oil and gas) sector for their advertising revenue, so they’re not ideologically aimed at writing critically about the hand that feeds them,” Livesey said.

Alternative outlets, like his home-base at the National Observer, may be producing award-winning investigations into powerful interests, but arguably lack sufficient funds to cover enough ground.

“I don’t think it’s an accident that Canada’s fallen to 22nd on the press freedom index.”

“It’s hard to do it. It’s hard to get paid to do it. It’s hard to find outlets that will pay you to do it,” he said.

“The issue is finding outlets who have a certain amount of bravery and also don’t have conflicts of interest. And that’s becoming harder and harder.”

Steph Wechsler is J-Source's managing editor.