by Steve Davis
Gordon Dalzell called the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal in August suggesting it write a story about a Canadian Medical Association study on air quality and pollution.
When a reporter called him for an interview, Dalzell used the study to underline his belief that a proposed second Irving oil refinery near Saint John would add disastrous levels of air pollution to an already over-stressed climate.
The story died on the newsroom floor.
“The editor killed the story, which I thought would have been relevant to Saint John and the new Irving refinery,” says Dalzell, head of the Saint John Citizens’ Coalition for Clean Air. “They certainly didn’t want to have any kind of a local perspective on that story.”
The paper ran a Canadian Press piece on the study instead.
Dalzell is one of many who criticize the Telegraph-Journal for superficial coverage of environmental concerns about Irving Oil energy projects.
The Telegraph-Journal is owned by Brunswick News Inc., which also owns the province’s other two major papers, over a dozen weekly papers, four radio stations and CanadaEast.com.
Court documents show Brunswick News Inc. has been fully owned by J.K Irving since June 2005. His grandson Jamie has been publisher of the Telegraph-Journal since December 2004.
“The problem is that the overall tone of the paper is pushing the corporate agenda,” says Saint John Green Party chairperson Leland Thomas. “People aren’t getting the whole story.”
Covering the company
The Irving media monopoly in New Brunswick has been examined extensively, most recently in a two-year study conducted by the Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communications released in 2006. The report states that “the Irving firms’ media dominance is compounded by the family’s dominance on the industrial side of the province.”
One in eight people in New Brunswick are employed by the Irving family’s various industries, which range from energy to forestry to french fries.
Erin Steuter, Sociology Chair at Mount Allison University, has written extensively on media concentration in the province. She says the Irving influence in the newsroom prevents critical stories on environment, industry, and the future direction of the New Brunswick economy.
“We’re not getting a full discussion of those issues because one of the biggest players in town is silencing much of the discussion because it would negatively affect their own business,” she says.
“There are good journalists there who have the capability, they’re just not allowed to talk about their boss.”
Shawna Richer hasn’t experienced any interference from Jamie Irving since she became editor of the Telegraph-Journal in June. She believes environmentalists criticize the paper because it is an easy target.
She says Jamie Irving does not actively participate in the newsroom.
One of the most critical issues facing the New Brunswick environment is the addition of a second Irving Oil refinery. The company officially named the $7-billion project ‘Eider Rock’ in reference to a local duck.
The Eider Rock refinery would produce 300,000 barrels a day, the same as Irving Oil’s current Saint John refinery, already the largest in Canada.
In early 2007, the provincial government began conducting an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) in the Red Head region east of Saint John.
A KJR study of Telegraph-Journal stories containing the phrase ‘Eider Rock’ since October 2006 returned 12 stories focused on the environment, but half of those stories deal strictly with the EIA process and not the environmental impact itself.
In contrast, 20 stories have focused on the economic prosperity that will come with the new refinery. Twelve of those stories have been published since the March 18 announcement that Irving Oil partnered with British Petroleum to conduct feasibility and design studies.
“What we’re being told is that this is going to create a lot of jobs, and it’s going to be an economic boom for the city,” says Thomas. “There’s very little about the emissions that will be produced. There’s almost nothing about the increase in the ship traffic. There’s nothing about all the land that’s going to be destroyed.”
The Saint John refinery emits nearly three million tonnes of greenhouse gases a year, although Eider Rock emissions would be less because of better technology.
Telegraph-Journal stories on Eider Rock often focus on improvements rather than concerns.
“I’m always aware â€¦this particular newspaper might use, or put into their own context anything that I would promote,” says Dalzell. “When we do give them a compliment, if it’s earned, they’re certainly going to play it up.”
Recent stories quoting Dalzell frequently feature phrases like “a step in the right direction,” “impressed with the government’s final guidelines,” and “it was an excellent workshop,” while his concerns appear later in the story or are ignored altogether.
“It’s like journalistic amnesia,” he says.
Former Telegraph-Journal editor Mark Tunney thinks the paper’s Eider Rock coverage is boring.
“They’ve talked to the token environmentalist and occasionally a token person from Red Head region who’s had concerns,” he says. “My general sense is they’re kind of buried in the stories.”
Jamie Irving hired Tunney in March 2005, but fired him 15 months later over a “difference of vision.”
“He wanted a more â€¦ booster for business kind of newspaper,” says Tunney. “You’re fighting over every editorial, you’re fighting over what news goes on the front page. Ultimately he’s the publisher.
“It seemed to me he wanted the paper, not so much protecting the Irvings, but one that maybe his father or grandfather would want to read,” Tunney says. “I was trying to make a newspaper that I wanted New Brunswickers to read.”
Richer says the paper is trying to make New Brunswick better by supporting economic growth.
“We are pro-development because development is good for the city, good for the economy, good for people’s jobs and their lives.”
The paper has mentioned the expected 5,000 construction jobs and 1,000 permanent jobs the refinery will provide in almost 40 stories since the project was announced.
“The overwhelming feeling of the coverage has been that this is great news for everybody; and the only real decision we have is which streets to pave with gold first,” says Tunney.
“Some of these stories should be looking deeper,” he says, “exploring how much good this is really going to do for the Saint John economy, and talking about some of the concerns people have. It just doesn’t answer my questions.”
A journalist in the family
Tunney says critical coverage of Irving family business has declined since Jamie Irving took over as publisher.
“It seems quite clear to me that they’re just not going to even try to cover themselves at all,” he says. “And they seem kind of unapologetic about that.”
Irving has a Masters of Science from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in New York City. He worked as an intern at the Telegraph-Journal long before becoming publisher.
He declined to be interviewed for this story.
Irving’s job as publisher has disappointed Steuter and other supporters of investigative journalism.
“[We] were hoping that with a real journalist at the helm we would start to see better journalistic practice,” she says. “I haven’t seen that happen.”
Steuter has written four academic papers about the Irving media monopoly in New Brunswick. The most recent, ‘He Who Pays the Piper Calls the Tune’, states that a “cutback in journalists usually means a reduction in investigative reportingâ€¦ and the reliance on press releases and easy-to-locate officials and media handlers.”
Steuter says Telegraph-Journal stories are often recreations of Irving press releases.
For example, the March 18 article ‘The Eider Rock Story: Facts and Figures’ is identical to the March 17 Irving fact sheet ‘BP Joins Irving Oil in Proposed Eider Rock Refinery Project.’
The op-ed section of the Telegraph-Journal has featured Eider Rock pieces written by Kenneth Irving and Kevin Scott, Irving Oil director of Refining Growth.
But it’s not just New Brunswick newspapers that are failing to investigate these issues. In her paper, Steuter states that “due to the for-profit orientation of the media industry, which emphasizes wire-service filler over investigative local news coverage, it is increasingly common for New Brunswick news issues to be neglected by the national media.”
CBC New Brunswick’s most recent story on Eider Rock was about the partnership between Irving Oil and British Petroleum announced on March 17.
Environmental stories have been few and far between, focusing on the same sources and quotes used by the Telegraph-Journal.
The East Coast Energy Hub
The Globe and Mail ran an article on Sept. 18 called ‘Re-energizing Saint John,’ a special story that focused solely on the potential economic windfall from a half-dozen current and future energy projects.
New Brunswick Energy Minister Jack Keir and Premier Shawn Graham have extensively promoted the concept of a New Brunswick ‘energy hub,’ which includes a natural gas pipeline through downtown Saint John, expansion of PotashCorp. mines, and upgrades to the Point Lepreau nuclear power plant.
Dalzell says the hype behind the hub is what discourages the Telegraph-Journal from investigating environmental concerns.
“With this energy hub and these big projects they’re much more restrained and cautious about how much criticism they’re going to pull out from the community,” he says.
Construction of the Eider Rock refinery will begin in 2010 if feedback from the Environmental Impact Assessment is positive.
Dalzell is looking forward to it.
“It’ll be interesting to see what kind of coverage they give to these thousand page documents, studies that will probably identify some real barriers and obstacles and impacts to this refinery,” he says. “There’s going to be people like us who have to come out and make sure the public is aware of them.”