By Joyita Sengupta
In his new book, Irving vs. Irving, Jacques Poitras gives an inside look at a family that has built an empire and is one of the richest families in Canada. Their monopoly in New Brunswick extends past oil and logging and into the province’s media.
The Irvings own almost all of New Brunswick’s English and French dailies and most of the local weekly and community papers. Long before the concentration of media ownership became a major issue in other parts of the country, the Irvings had set the example.
Poitras worked for an Irving-owned daily, the Saint John Telegraph-Journal, as a reporter before becoming the provincial affairs reporter for CBC Radio New Brunswick. After interviewing members of the Irving family, former employees and other players in the media industry, Poitras describes how the Irvings and their many businesses have gone underreported, partially due to their financial and editorial grasp on the newsrooms of the province.
J-Source: Why do you think the Irvings aren’t better known across the country? They seem to have flown under the radar for many people outside of New Brunswick.
Jacques Poitras: When I was in journalism school in the ’80s, the Irvings were fairly well known amongst journalists and journalism professors as a case study in concentration of media. I think what’s happened since is that a lot of consolidation took place elsewhere in the business like with Bell and when Conrad Black bought Southam and took over a lot of dailies. At the national level, there were bigger, more troublesome—in the view of the critics—cases of concentration of ownership. In comparison, the Irving case looked quite small. It looked almost like independent, local family ownership. The media landscape changed so much that the scale of this didn’t seem as much anymore. But in New Brunswick, it has remained a big topic.
J-Source: How does the Irvings’ ownership over these dailies affect the media landscape on a national level?
JP: Because newspaper copy goes to The Canadian Press, the rest of the country does depend on these newspapers to report on what’s going on in New Brunswick. Unless CP or the Globe is staffing a story with their own reporters, the national picture that goes across the country and into archives is going to be affected by editorial decisions at those Irving newspapers.
J-Source: You had worked for the Telegraph-Journal for more than six years before moving to CBC Radio. Is working for an Irving-owned media outlet noticeably different from working for one that is not?
JP: How the Irving ownership affects media coverage is not a black and white issue. It’s a complicated issue, which is why I wanted to explore it through the book. You can look at any one story and the way it is covered in the paper and say that story is obviously covered that way because of the owners. You really have to explore it in detail to see what was driving these decisions. There’s a pattern with what I have quoted people saying is that often the issue wasn’t one of the Irvings telling people what to put in the newspaper but the newsroom itself anticipating what might alarm the owners and making decisions on that basis.
J-Source: Did the Irving family cooperate when you were researching this book?
JP: The Irvings were cooperative at first. I did do an interview with two senior members of the family who are directly in the ownership chain of the papers. Jamie Irving, who directly runs the newspaper company, did not want to participate. He would not do an interview. He sent out a memo to staff reminding them that they were not to be doing interviews about the company with outside publications. He did not mention my book specifically but I took that as a reaction to my research. His father, Jim Irving, and Jim’s father, J.K. Irving, were the ones that did do the interviews, but when I emailed their communications people with a list of follow-up questions, fact-checking and other things I wanted to pursue, they said they didn’t want to participate anymore because they felt I was going into areas they would not consent to talk about. So I guess the answer is both yes and no. Other than that, I did a lot of interviews with former employees and with people who know the Irvings. There was a surprising amount of information available in public sources like court rulings and other documents, so it was actually a lot easier to find about things than I expected.
J-Source: Why do think they changed their mind about talking to you?
JP: They’re very private people in general. This is their nature. All their companies are privately held. No outside shareholders, no outside directors. I think they’re just private by nature and they don’t want to get into any of it. So, on the newspaper business, when I interviewed the two older Irvings, they answered many of my questions but some of my questions, they just answered with slogans, in sort of generalities. When I tried to go into detail on things like the splitting up of the companies, they just didn’t want to get into specific details at all so they’re just very guarded about that. I don’t know that they were trying to keep anything particular a secret as much as they’re just private nature and opening up is not the kind of thing they do. Which is interesting for owners of a media company as the goal of the media should be to try to find out as many things as possible and open things up.
J-Source: Do you think the Irvings understand that there’s a difference between how they run their business and how the media generally operate?
JP: There’s a section in a book towards the end where the older Mr. Irving, JK, says that if the manager [at one of their other businesses] was to drop dead or something like that, one of them could go in and run it directly until they found a new one. But with the newspapers, it’s different. There’s an art to it and it’s a different kind of thing that they wouldn’t be able to do themselves.[New Brunswick writer] Lisa Hrabluk says in another part of my book that for Conrad Black, owning newspapers was a part of who he was. For the Irvings, it’s a minor part of what they do. It’s not a central part of their identity. They don’t look at themselves as newspaper owners as much as they do as builders, manufacturers and lumber men. It’s a bit separate or a foreign concept from the businesses that they know and understand on a daily basis.
This interview has been edited and condensed.