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Postmedia's cozy relationship with the fossil-fuel industry

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Person stands in front of display of newspaper broadsheets. Image credit: Jason Franson/ Postmedia via Capital Ideas Edmonton/Flickr

Canada's fossil-fuel industries, backed by a network of allies, anchor a "regime of obstruction" against effective climate policy. As identified by the Corporate Mapping Project, Canada's Fossil-Power Top 50 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 newspaper-owning corporations.

Why newspapers? After all, their business model is collapsing and newsrooms shrinking as audiences and advertising migrate online. Yet as researcher Marc Edge argues, reports of their death are "greatly exaggerated." Newspaper revenues still exceed their operating expenses, and they retain residual prestige. They originate much of the news, help set public agendas, and are branching heavily into digital operations.

If Canadians want a conversation about energy and climate policy undistorted by big oil's outsized influence, newspapers still matter. Are they doing the job?

Sean Holman, journalism professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, found that in covering Canada's "Big 5" petro corporations, Canada's corporate press conducted relatively few interviews with environmentalists, and under-reported environmental impacts of climate change and negative news about the fossil-fuel industries' economic prospects, and their damage to the environment, society and economy.

Saskatchewan law professor Jason MacLean analyzed reportage and commentary on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion (TMX) in the Globe and Mail -- widely regarded as Canada's "newspaper of record."

MacLean found that fossil-fuel industries have essentially captured the Globe's framing of TMX as in "the public interest," with the "regrettable result" of legitimizing "climate policy inaction in Canada." Critical articles sometimes appear, but they are disconnected from the sustained pro-industry commentary.

But our choice for top corporate media legitimator is Postmedia, Canada's largest newspaper chain. Holman found that its newspapers particularly favour fossil-fuel development, and bash climate action. Researcher Edge estimated that by 2016, Postmedia published 37.6 per cent of Canadian paid daily newspaper circulation (75.4 per cent in the three westernmost provinces) and owned 15 of the 22 largest English dailies.

Postmedia's pro-petro position is most evident in its carbon-coddling conservative columnists (as distinct from its professional reporters). Ideologues like Stewart Muir, Terence Corcoran, John Ivison, Claudia Cattaneo (described by energy journalist Markham Hislop as "the attack dog for a certain segment of the Alberta oilpatch"), and a dozen others extend their influence beyond the printed page.

Researcher Bob Neubauer found that of the top-10 mainstream media outlets whose opinion articles were most often cited in Facebook posts by six prominent online 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," Neubauer said in an emailed response.

"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."

Journalists, even widely read columnists, don't work in a vacuum. To survive, newspapers need to meet political and/or economic objectives as interpreted and enforced by management and ownership through key decisions about resource allocation, marketing strategies, news work routines, and hiring.

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. Since 2016, Chatham Asset Management has held about 66 per cent ownership, a company with an 80 per cent stake in American Media Inc., controversial for its ties to former U.S. president Donald Trump.

In effect, Postmedia is a revenue conduit for the U.S. hedge funds, which receive loan repayments at a high rate of interest. Postmedia circumvents the Canadian tax laws intended to preclude foreign ownership of Canadian media by limiting U.S.-held shares to 49.9 per cent of the votes in shareholder matters -- an end run that was approved by Stephen Harper's Conservative government. Postmedia dailies' 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.

Is Postmedia's petro-friendliness driven by economic considerations? Phyllise Gelfand, vice-president of communications, declined to comment on the company's strategic direction, but in an emailed response said, "We will continue to do our part engaging audiences, producing compelling content and advocating for a level playing field for the Canadian media industry against international digital media giants."

Informed observers, however, offer plausible explanations for petro-boosterism.

Given Postmedia's pursuit of digital revenues, Ethan Cox sees the columnists' extremism as "rage-bait" intended to provoke readers to "hate-click" on their articles.

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 corporate print media, but it may point to a specific symbiosis in the case of revenue-hungry Postmedia and big oil, a wealthy industry with public-image problems and a need to reach decision-makers and publics. Postmedia can offer a "trusted brand" and prestige that Facebook can't provide.

Indeed, in 2014, the Vancouver Observer disclosed a proposed partnership between Postmedia and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (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" in a series of 12 single-page "joint ventures" in the National Post and other major newspapers.

However, there is little evidence that this relationship continued regularly. 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 (CTF), as reported in 2016, provides an apparent model. CTF supplied bountiful free op-ed articles -- an information subsidy -- that reflected its agenda; in return, CTF accessed the chain's large print and digital readership.

Similarly, while social media and CAPP's own publications reach its core constituency, op-ed articles and "earned media" in the press help CAPP reach general audiences. Earned (unpaid) media eases the pressure on advertising budgets, which had declined along with oil revenues.

Our online searches indicate that 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.

A right-wing political stance is also about market positioning. Postmedia's National Post was launched in 1998 by Conrad Black as a flagship for thoughtful conservatism, which in Canada often means neoliberalism marinated in oil.

In 2013, then-publisher Douglas Kelley described his paper as "one of the country's leading voices 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 to amplify (our) energy mandate." Energy mandate, not journalism?

In 2019, Postmedia ownership promoted Kevin Libin, one of the chain's most conservative editorial voices, to "executive editor of politics." His reported mission 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 centralization of political coverage. Some observers interpret the move as a business decision to "capture the mainstream conservative audience segment while competitors fight for other pieces of the pie."

Such centralization is facilitated by the chain's cutbacks to local newsrooms. 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.

Meanwhile, in Canada's press generally, costly investigative journalism declines, coverage becomes more reactive, and information subsidies from sources considered to be legitimate and authoritative -- like the petro industry's readily publishable data and graphics -- become more tempting.

The conservative stance reflects management's own politics, as well. While just one of Postmedia's board directors (Wendy Henkelman) has direct links to big oil, most of the others have experience in other private-sector corporations, according to their online biographies.

Several have connections to conservative parties. 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 long-standing and active Conservative. Alongside Postmedia's previous board chair, Rod Phillips, Godfrey held a $1,000-a-head fundraiser for the Ontario party in 2019. Phillips was finance minister in Premier Doug Ford's cabinet until his COVID-19 advisory-breaking Caribbean vacation.

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 Cattaneo and former Calgary Herald political journalist and United Conservative Party candidate Tom Olsen as CEO.

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.

But that's a symptom of a larger problem, with implications for the race against climate change: profit-oriented corporate control, insufficient resources for independent investigative journalism, and lack of ideological diversity in Canada's press.

This is the first part of a two-part series on the relationship between Canada's energy industry and corporate media. Read part two here. An extended version of the first article is scheduled for the May issue of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives' Monitor magazine.

This article was first published in the National Observer and is reprinted here with permission.

Robert Hackett, contributing columnist, is professor emeritus, and Hanna Araza a graduate, of the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University.

Research for this article was supported by the Corporate Mapping Project, a research and public engagement project investigating the power of the fossil fuel industry in Western Canada led by the University of Victoria, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (B.C. and Saskatchewan offices) and Parkland Institute. This research is supported by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Image credit: Jason Franson/ Postmedia via Capital Ideas Edmonton/Flickr

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