The Oil Blotter: Postmedia & Big Oil’s symbiosis

With some notable exceptions, like the Globe and Mail's feature on the enormous cost of remediating Alberta's abandoned oil wells, Canada's corporate press hasn't paid much critical attention to this powerful industrial sector. Why not?

May 1, 2021

12-minute read

Canada's fossil fuel industries, backed by a network of allies, anchor a "regime of obstruction" against effective climate policy. As identified by the CCPA's Corporate Mapping Project, Canada's Fossil-Power Top 501 includes emitters, the extractive corporations with the greatest carbon footprint; enablers, mainly banks and industry-friendly regulators; and legitimators, who publicly advocate against an urgent shift from fossil fuels. Legitimators include industry associations, think tanks, lobby groups, business councils and pro-oil advocacy groups.

That list should also include some of Canada's corporate-owned news media—particularly the largest newspaper chain, Postmedia. Researcher Marc Edge estimated that by 2016, Postmedia published 37.6% of Canadian paid daily newspaper circulation—75.4% in the three westernmost provinces—and owned 15 of the 22 largest English dailies.2

It's fashionable to dismiss newspapers as yesterday's news. Their advertising-based business model is collapsing, circulation declining, newsrooms shrinking and audiences turning to online distractions. Yet as Edge argues, reports of their death are "greatly exaggerated".3 Newspapers remain profitable on an operating basis. They are still engines for originating news, retaining residual prestige, and branching heavily into digital operations.

Researcher Robert Neubauer found that of the top ten mainstream media outlets whose opinion articles were most often cited in Facebook posts by six prominent pro-petro groups, all but one (the Globe and Mail) were Postmedia dailies.

"Their opinion pieces and uncritical industry reporting are a major source of content for the social media feeds of pro-oil advocates, who recirculate this content to legitimize their own talking points," says Neubauer. "Moreover, accessing 'legacy media' is a common use of social media for many Canadians, especially on Facebook. Thus, legacy media are still very important, even if their modes of content circulation have changed."4

Does that matter? Yes, if Canadians want a conversation about energy and climate policy undistorted by Big Oil's outsized influence.

Calgary-based journalist and researcher Sean Holman found that in covering Canada's "big five" petro corporations—Canadian Natural Resources, Suncor Energy, Cenovus Energy, Imperial Oil, Husky Energy (now merged with Suncor)—Canadian newspapers conducted relatively few interviews with environmentalists, and downplayed negative news about the fossil fuel industries' economic prospects; their damage to the environment, society and economy; or environmental impacts of climate change. Postmedia newspapers in particular tend to favour fossil fuel development, and to bash climate action.5

With some notable exceptions, like the Globe and Mail's feature6 on the enormous cost of remediating Alberta's abandoned oil wells, Canada's corporate press hasn't paid much critical attention to this powerful industrial sector. Why not?

Canadian newspapers conducted relatively few interviews with environmentalists, and downplayed negative news about the fossil fuel industries' economic prospects; their damage to the environment, society and economy; or environmental impacts of climate change.

Are journalists at fault?

Within a hierarchical media organization, journalists are arguably more influenced by career ambitions and the implicit assumptions of their social and professional cultures, than by their individual backgrounds. They accept the extractivist narrative linking fossil fuels to jobs and prosperity, because they don't understand the alternative, and don't want to be seen as outliers.

Canadian reporters have been less likely than their U.S. counterparts to sacrifice truth-telling about climate change to the ethic of neutrality between scientists and deniers. But arguably, there is still a comparative reluctance to challenge conventional wisdom. Compared to the crusading climate journalism of the Guardian, writes journalist and Ecotrust founder Ian Gill, Canadian mainstream journalism has been so pale that "nobody comes anywhere near as close to calling our energy sector (and our investment community) to account".7

There's little evidence that reporters soft-pedal news, eyeing better-paying corporate public relations jobs. But don't discount Big Oil's efforts to win media hearts and minds. A mini-scandal erupted in 2014, over the lucrative honoraria paid to Peter Mansbridge, then-anchor of CBC's The National, for public appearances to industry groups. Public exposure by the watchdog website Canadaland forced CBC to beef up its conflict-of-interest policies.8

Unlike reporters, columnists are expected to express their opinions. As Neubauer notes, they are a key link between the press and the petro-lobby. Two types of columnists appear to predominate at Postmedia. There are political analysts who aren't explicitly ideological; they represent politics as a game, analyzing the strategies of players without challenging extractivism's basic assumptions.

Then there are hardcore ideologues—Postmedia's carbon-coddling conservative columnists. Some are veteran journalists with Jurassic political views, like libertarian climate denier Terence Corcoran, hard-right political columnist John Ivison, and Claudia Cattaneo, described by Hislop as "an attack dog" for "the rabidly conservative part of the Alberta oil patch".9 Others have been actively involved in right-wing politics, like former Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith, and Licia Corbella, who—unbeknownst to her editors—was a voting member of Alberta's United Conservative Party while touting Jason Kenney's 2017 leadership bid in the Calgary Herald.10 Some of the most widely-read columnists are not employees of Postmedia, but guest commentators with extractivist credentials. These include researcher Vivian Krause, who touts the conservative conspiracy narrative that Canadian environmental non-profits are dupes of American foundations.11

What's missing, of course, is sustained analysis from the Left.

Journalists do not work in a vacuum. Political interventions and top-down orders to avoid a topic are infrequent, though they do occur—like the Postmedia directive to its dailies to endorse Harper's Conservatives in the 2015 federal election.12 More typically, management and ownership exert influence through key decisions about resource allocations, marketing strategies, newswork routines, and hiring. In recent decades, media corporations have rationalized their resources and trimmed costs while intensifying productivity demands on journalists. Under these conditions, more reporters become generalists covering a range of topics in multiple platforms, rather than specializing in particular beats. Coverage thus tends to be reactive, offering little background, sometimes just reproducing press releases, helped by readily publishable data and graphics from the petro industry. Investigative journalists can still be found, but they need senior editors' green light to pursue particular stories. As Postmedia consolidated operations to create "common pages" of political and national coverage centrally prepared and distributed to the local dailies, homogenized editorial positions became more possible.

As Postmedia consolidated operations to create "common pages" of political and national coverage centrally prepared and distributed to the local dailies, homogenized editorial positions became more possible.

Postmedia and Big Oil: Corporate symbiosis?

Postmedia emerged from previous owner Canwest's ill-fated gamble on multimedia "convergence" between broadcast, print and digital media. The papers were bought at bargain prices by its creditors with U.S. hedge fund backing.13 Since 2016, Chatham Asset Management has held about 66% ownership, the same company with an 80% stake in American Media Inc., controversial for its ties to Donald Trump.14

In effect, Postmedia is a revenue conduit for the U.S. hedge funds, which extract loans at a high rate of interest. Postmedia circumvents the Canadian tax laws intended to preclude foreign ownership of Canadian media, by making the U.S.-held shares non-voting—an end-run approved by the Harper government. Postmedia dailies are still profitable in that operating revenues exceed expenses—but at the cost of cutbacks that arguably reduce its asset value. Growing digital revenues have not offset declining revenues from print circulation and advertising.15

Does Postmedia's petro-boosterism derive from a board with intercorporate connections to Big Oil? Not directly. The biographies of nine Postmedia board directors reveal that just one, Wendy Henkelman, had direct links. Most of the others have experience in other private-sector corporations.

Several board members have strong ties to conservative politics. Janet Ecker was a senior cabinet minister under two Ontario Tory premiers, and a fellow at the neoliberal C.D. Howe Institute. Ex-CEO Paul Godfrey is a longstanding and active Conservative. Along with Postmedia's previous board chair, Rod Phillips, Godfrey held a $1000-a-head fundraiser for the Ontario Conservative party in 2019. Phillips was finance minister in Premier Doug Ford's cabinet until his COVID-19 advisory-breaking Caribbean vacation.

A right-wing political stance is also about market positioning. The National Post has long presented itself as a voice of thoughtful conservatism, including support for fossil fuel expansion and climate skepticism. In Canada, neoliberalism comes marinated in oil. In 2013, Douglas Kelley, then-publisher of the National Post, described his paper as a "leading voice…on the importance of energy to Canada's business," promising to "leverage all means editorially, technically and creatively to further this critical conversation" and to "work with CAPP [Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers] to amplify our energy mandate".16 Energy mandate, not journalism?

More recently, Postmedia ownership promoted Kevin Libin, arguably one of the chain's most conservative editorial voices.17 Libin's mission as "executive editor of politics" is "to oversee…political reporting and certain commentary published across Postmedia's newspapers", and to move the chain even more reliably to the right – a strategy requiring an unprecedented degree of centralized political coverage.

What is the rationale?18 Some observers see narrowly political motives, such as the political ambitions of board members, while others interpret it as a business decision to "capture the mainstream conservative audience segment while competitors fight for other pieces of the pie".19 One observer sees the columnists' extremism as "rage-bait", intended to provoke online readers to "hate-click" on their articles.20

Another speculation focuses on "sponsored content"—articles, resembling regular news, generated by journalists but paid for by advertisers who control or approve the product. That gambit is part of a broader trend in the corporate print media.21

Sponsored content can be deceptive, difficult to differentiate from news reports. Moreover, writes researcher Victor Pickard, it fosters a "pay-to-play" society where “inequalities are increasingly inscribed into its media system".22 Those inequalities include Big Oil's potential influence through both the direct purchase of news media space, and implicit pressure on outlets not to bite the clients who feed them.

There is a potential inter-industry symbiosis. With their advertising revenue siphoning off to the giant Internet platforms, newspapers need cash flows and can offer a "trusted brand" —in the words of Postmedia's website23— something that Facebook ads can't deliver. Conversely, Big Oil is a wealthy industry with public image problems and a need to reach decision-makers and publics. The industry clearly sees an existential threat from emerging climate policies, declining global oil prices, and growing liabilities. As described by industry-friendly journals, its PR challenges include attacks from environmental groups, low trust in the industry, growing public concern about climate change and pipelines, and insufficient advocacy from the industry itself.24

Indeed, in 2014, the Vancouver Observer disclosed a proposed partnership between Postmedia and CAPP to "bring energy to the forefront of our national conversation" and "link Postmedia's sponsored energy content with CAPP's 'thought leadership'." The proposal suggested "topics to be directed by CAPP and written by Postmedia", with a series of 12 single page "joint ventures" in the National Post and other major newspapers.25

However, there is little evidence that this relationship continued on an ongoing basis. Around 2016, the industry shifted its PR gears, mobilizing its own "natural" constituency—its employees and resource communities—through weaponizing social media and supporting grassroots engagement.

But the industry still sees newspapers as important in shaping the narrative, and Postmedia appears to be a particularly reliable partner. Postmedia's relationship with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation provides an apparent model. CTF supplies bountiful free opinion articles—an information subsidy—that reflect its agenda; in return, CTF accesses the chain's large print and digital readership.26

Between 2016 and 2020, Postmedia published at least 19 articles by CAPP CEO Tim McMillan, and several by other CAPP directors or executives. CAPP appears to find a higher chance of editorial acceptance and a more receptive readership in Postmedia papers, compared to other outlets—although CAPP also talks to other leading media, such as the Globe and Mail.

The combination of political and financial motives is evident in Postmedia's efforts to ride the $30-million gravy train of Alberta premier Jason Kenney's Canadian Energy Centre, intended to counter environmentalists' critiques of the oil industry. In 2019, Postmedia hired Nick Koolsbergen—a former senior adviser to several right-of-centre government leaders, including Kenney—to lobby for involvement in that "energy war room." Several ex-Postmedia gladiators were hired, including Cattaneo27 and former Calgary Herald political journalist and UCP candidate Tom Olsen as CEO.28

In short, Postmedia and Big Oil share an agenda around institutional legitimacy, political influence, and economic interests. Their relationship is often personal and informal, anchored in a shared ideology in a polarized political environment. The result: journalism that treats Big Oil with kid gloves, and environmentalists and climate scientists with hostility.

"Postmedia and Big Oil share an agenda around institutional legitimacy, political influence, and economic interests. Their relationship is often personal and informal, anchored in a shared ideology in a polarized political environment. The result: journalism that treats Big Oil with kid gloves, and environmentalists and climate scientists with hostility."

The bigger picture

Some obvious caveats are in order: Newspaper-owning corporations other than Postmedia also have strong ties to Big Oil, from LNG-investor David Black's community weeklies in BC, to the Irving family industrial-media complex that dominates New Brunswick's three major dailies and its domestic oil refinery business. Postmedia sometimes publishes dissident voices on energy policy, like David Hughes's critique of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, in the Vancouver Sun.29

Scholarly research,30 and conversations with journalists over the years, identify many influences on news narratives, beyond corporate self-interest. Local markets and social ecologies. Routine dependence on official sources. Governments and leading politicians as "primary definers" of the terms of political debate, even in an era of cynicism and populism. Implicit acceptance of extractivism and economic growth, in corporate newsrooms and senior governments alike. Canada's historical status as a resource hinterland – hewers of wood, drawers of water, and now, drillers of oil—related to colonialism and dispossession of Indigenous people, and frankly, systemic racism.

So it's not about demonizing one company, or denying columnists' right to rant. Postmedia's relentless 'petroganda' amid our climate emergency exemplifies a larger problem—the lack of ideological diversity in Canada's press. The moderate environmentalism, sometimes found in CBC or Toronto Star, is not an adequate counterbalance.

Public policy can address that issue. It can build on the Trudeau government's belated recognition of journalism as a "public good"—a service valued by society but difficult to finance through market mechanisms. The $600 million journalism support program31 could be confined to Canadian-owned media, and/or to journalists themselves, not to foreign-owned corporations that channel subsidies to shareholders while continuing to cut reporters. Increased support to non-profit and independent outlets is justifiable on grounds of representative, democratic diversity; as a by-product, they are more likely to offer critical energy and climate coverage.32 If Postmedia is eventually bled dry by the hedge funds, facilitate acquisition of its remaining dailies by local newsworker co-operatives. Stronger enforcement of competition policy could preclude one-company dominance of the press in the future.

Above all, let's recognize that a habitable planet, a healthier democracy, and independent journalism are overlapping goals.

This analysis was undertaken as part of the Corporate Mapping Project, a research and public engagement initiative jointly led by the University of Victoria, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ BC and Saskatchewan Offices, and the Alberta-based Parkland Institute. This research was supported by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

References:

1CCPA, Fossil Power Top 50 (Corporate Mapping Project). Available: https://www.corporatemapping.ca/database/fossil-power-top-50/ [2021, Jan 16]

2Marc Edge, “The Never-ending Story: Postmedia, the Competition Bureau, and Press Ownership Concentration in Canada,” in the Canadian Journal of Media Studies, Spring-Summer 2016. Available: https://cjms.fims.uwo.ca/issues/14-01/edge.pdf

3Marc Edge, Greatly Exaggerated: The Myth of the Death of Newspapers (New Star Books, 2014). Available: https://www.newstarbooks.com/book.php?book_id=1554201020

4Personal correspondence.

5Sean Holman, (Sept 3, 2020). “Op-ed: Canada’s oil giants deserve tougher coverage” in the Columbia Journalism Review [Online]. Available: https://www.cjr.org/covering_c...

6Jeff Lewis et al, (Nov 23, 2018). “Hustle in the oil patch: Inside a looking financial and environmental crisis,” in The Globe and Mail [Online]. Available: https://www.theglobeandmail.co...

7Ian Gill, No News is Bad News (David Suzuki Institute/Greystone Books, 2016), p. 81.

8Jesse Brown, (Feb 26, 2014). “Oil Sands Group Confirms Paying Peter Mansbridge,” in Canadaland [Online]. Available: https://www.canadaland.com/oil...

9Markham Hislop, (Jul 3, 2017). “Postmedia fires first shot in political war with NDP over energy/climate policies,” in EnergiMedia [Online]. Available: https://energi.media/markham-o...

10Press Progress, (Aug 12, 2019). “Calgary Herald Retracts Licia Corbella’s Columns Promoting Jason Kenney’s 2017 UCP Leadership Bid” [Online]. Available: https://pressprogress.ca/calga...

11“Topics: Vivian Krause,” in The Narwhal [Online]. Available: https://thenarwhal.ca/topics/v...

12Sean Craig, (Aug 12, 2019). “You Must Be This Conservative To Ride: The Inside Story of Postmedia’s Right Turn,” in Canadaland [Online]. Available: https://www.canadaland.com/the...

13Marc Edge, Greatly Exaggerated.

14Postmedia, (2019). 2019 Q1 report, 34. Available: https://www.postmedia.com/wp-c... [2019, Jan].

15Postmedia, 2019 Q1 report, 34.

16Carol Linnitt, (Jun 20, 2014). “Postmedia Gets Away with Running Unmarked Oil Advertorials,” in The Narwhal [Online]. Available: https://thenarwhal.ca/postmedi...

17Craig, “You Must Be This Conservative To Ride: The Inside Story of Postmedia’s Right Turn.”

18Kevin Libin and Postmedia Vice-president of Communication Phyllise Gelfand declined to be interviewed about Postmedia's strategies.

19Craig, “You Must Be This Conservative To Ride: The Inside Story of Postmedia’s Right Turn.”

20Ethan Cox, (Apr 28, 2020). “Postmedia’s John Ivison, the worst person on the Internet,” in Ricochet [Online]. Available: https://ricochet.media/en/3072...

21Marc Edge, Greatly Exaggerated, 212-221.

22Victor Pickard, Democracy without Journalism? (Oxford University Press, 2020): 80-81, 98. Available: https://oxford.universitypress...

23https://www.postmediasolutions...

24Melanie Darbyshire, “Getting the Message Out: Alberta’s Energy Industry Advocates for Itself,” in Business of Energy, Dec 2019 Issue, 9-12. Available: https://issuu.com/businessined...

25Jenny Uechi & Matthew Millar, (Feb 2, 2014). “Presentation suggests intimate relationship between Postmedia and oil industry,” in the Vancouver Observer [Online]. Available: https://www.vancouverobserver....

26David J. Climenhaga, (Mar 29, 2016). “Postmedia’s symbiotic relationship with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation fails to offer much illumination,” in Rabble [Online]. Available: https://rabble.ca/blogs/bloggers/djclimenhaga/2016/03/postmedias-symbiotic-relationship-canadian-taxpayers-federation-

27https://calgaryherald.com/news...

28https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/...

29David Hughes, (Nov 21, 2020). “David Hughes: The Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project is not needed,” in the Vancouver Sun [Online]. Available: https://vancouversun.com/opini...

30Pamela Shoemaker and Stephen D. Reese, Mediating the Message: Theories of Influences on Mass Media Content, 2nd ed. White Plains, NY, 1996).

31Department of Finance Canada, “Government of Canada Clarifies Support for Canadian Journalism,” April 2020 [News release]. A range of media reform options was discussed in a special issue of the Monitor, July/August 2016. Available: The Monitor, July/August 2016 | Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives

32Robert A. Hackett & Philippa R. Adams, Jobs vs the Environment? CCPA Report, Dec. 2018. Available: https://www.policyalternatives...

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