Source : Halifax Herald
Local journalist speaks out against N.B. media monopoly, wins award
In October of last year, the weekly independent newspaper in New Brunswick, called here, was bought by an Irving family company, Brunswick News Inc.
After more than four years of being the alternative news voice in Saint John, the paper tried to expand to Moncton. It met competition from the Irvings, who began their own weekly called the Metro Marquee. here couldn't match the Metro Marquee's advertising rates and the owners decided to sell their paper to the Irvings before they went bankrupt.
As a result, all English newspapers in New Brunswick are now owned by the Irving family.
This got Megan Wennberg, a native of Saint John and now a freelance journalist in Halifax, fired up.
"I have the belief that one person or one company owning all the media in a province or in a country just isn't a good idea," she says. "It's not a good idea for democracy. It's not a good idea for the public. It just limits the number of voices that can be heard because of who's controlling it."
She was going to give a commentary about the sale on CBC, except her father, a corporate lawyer for the Irvings, thought it might harm his firm in some way.
"He said he didn't want to quash me creatively, but he couldn't see how I could do it. Finally I had to call CBC and say I couldn't do it because my dad's obviously more important than this commentary."
Then Wennberg got an e-mail about the Dalton Camp Award, an essay contest put on by the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting. The theme of the award is "the link between democratic values and the quality of the media in Canada."
She felt compelled to write about the sale of here once again. She didn't worry about her father's concerns as much this time because she thought her essay would only appear on the web.
But then she found out she won the contest. She travelled to Banff, Alta., earlier this month to claim her medal and $5,000 in prize money. The news resulted in another argument with her father.
"He finally talked to his firm because he was basically thinking that he would have to resign before the essay came out," says Wennberg. "He talked to the partners and they calmed him down by saying that I'm not a member of the firm and they have no right to tell me what I can and can't write."
For Wennberg, it was just another example of how the Irvings pervade every aspect of life in Saint John.
"You don't really think about it all the time, because it doesn't come up. But it's always there. The smell from the pulp mill is always there, the oil refinery smoke towers are always there. Something like this just brings it to the surface."
Wennberg felt like she was speaking out on behalf of all of the people who couldn't.
"The Irvings are the economic force in the province and the city and your parents work for them, your friends' parents work for them and your brother and sister end up working for them. It's hard to be independent."
Wennberg says she was surprised when she saw a post-sale editorial in here's Jan. 6 issue, titled, "They're not evil, but they may be incompetent." It criticized the Irving media monopoly.
"They're not out for editorial control, generally speaking," says Wennberg. "It's just when all the writers know full well who's writing their paycheque that it's more self-censorship that will be the issue."
Wennberg notes that there is a Senate committee looking at the ownership of media in Canada right now. She knows it's a hot topic, but she doesn't know if her essay will have any influence.
"There aren't any anti-monopoly laws and there should be. Or there should be some sort of government program supporting people who want to put out independent, small community publications just to ensure that different voices are getting heard and not having the content dictated by some corporate mandate, which is ultimately to make money."
She says the Irvings are just a small example of what is happening all over Canada.
"Vancouver has the same thing. CanWest Global is a way bigger problem."
In the end, her father accepted the reassurance from his law firm and reconciled with his daughter.
"My dad was really proud . . . really happy."
Read Wennberg's winning essay online, along with fellow winner Kurt Peacock's essay at www.friends.ca/DCA/2005_winners.asp
Laura Graham is a freelance writer living in Halifax.
© Halifax Herald