Iceland’s Democracy Hangover: Why The International Media Got It All Wrong

Iceland’s Democracy Hangover: Why The International Media Got It All Wrong

Photos by
Art Bicnick

Published November 7, 2016

The Independence Party emerged as the dominant party from our parliamentary elections. President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson granted them the mandate to form the next coalition government. While that new coalition has not yet been decided, the Pirate Party has been all but sidelined in the coalition talks. It looks as though, despite numerous breathless headlines in the international press to the contrary, the Pirates might not even be in the ruling coalition, let alone leading it.

How did so many people get it so wrong? In the days leading up to the elections, I was interviewed by a number of international media outlets, and I began to notice a pattern forming. A great many outlets had their narrative set in stone; they were simply looking for sources to support their narrative, at the expense of actual information. This could have been avoided if reporters were more willing to change their narratives than change the news.

The roots of this go back to 2015. From March of that year onwards, the Pirates pulled into the top of the polls. This made the international press pay attention to the Pirates again, having only sporadically touched base with them since they won three seats in Parliament in 2013. However, from March 2016 onwards, Pirate polling began to tumble. They would occasionally get a few blips upward in support from time to time, but the downward trend continued nonetheless, while the Independence Party steadily climbed. We reported on this fact pretty regularly in the weeks and days leading up to the election, and we certainly weren’t alone in conveying this sobering fact.

But you wouldn’t know that to read the numerous articles contending the Pirates were “set to take over” the Icelandic government, many of these articles continuing to falsely contend that the Pirates were leading the polls. The press had not updated their information, opting instead to rely on their previous reporting as the basis for their contentions on the level of Pirate popular support.

The entire fiasco of reporting that went down in the lead up to, and in the wake of, our parliamentary elections was completely avoidable.

Not that many in the international press even understood who the Pirates were. Many described them as “radical,” with some going so far as to call them “anarchists and libertarians.” These outlets either have no understanding of radicalism, the Pirate Party platform, or both. Radicalism and especially anarchism are by definition anti-establishment forces that fight against the system; taking part in the system to change it from within is reformism. This is Political Theory 101. The Pirates do have a number of platform points that go farther in their reformist agenda than any other party, but this does not change the fact that they are an established political party that campaigned for seats in Parliament. An “anarchist party” is as much a contradiction now as an “anarchist mayor” was when Jón Gnarr was leader of Reykjavík.

But because the narrative of a radical political party sweeping the elections was just too lurid, too colorful, too compelling; and the momentum spreading across international media so self-sustaining, any kind of about-face towards “actually their support is on a razor’s edge and things could very well tip in the opposite direction” was some kind of buzzkill. No one was interested in hearing this. The press was very diligent in contacting the Pirates themselves for choice quotes, at the expense of a broader context that painted quite a different picture of their chances.

Granted, a lot of this is a symptom of international reporting on Iceland that Icelanders themselves are very familiar with: the utopian hyperbole. Iceland nationalises the banks? Headlines read “Iceland Lets The Banks Fail.” Iceland goes through a complex process mixing democracy and expert opinion to write a constitutional draft? “Iceland Crowdsources New Constitution.” Thousands of Icelanders put a Like on a Facebook page calling for the government to accept more refugees? “10,000 Icelanders Open Their Homes To Refugees.”

In other words, the hyperbolic and inaccurate reporting on the Pirate Party in the run-up to parliamentary elections is symptomatic of a larger problem within the international media when it comes to reporting on Iceland: they start with a glowing narrative, and then look for people willing to go on record supporting that narrative.

I say all this with the caveat that not every international media outlet was guilty of this. I had a number of meaningful interviews with these reporters, and I think reporters by and large are in the business to inform the public. But that’s what makes it even more important to be able to swallow your pride and drop your long-running narrative if more recent information undermines it. The international press has been decidedly quiet in the wake of the elections. Meanwhile, the Grapevine will continue to report on the forms and permutations Iceland’s government will ultimately transform into. The entire fiasco of reporting that went down in the lead up to, and in the wake of, our parliamentary elections was completely avoidable. Hopefully, next time we have parliamentary elections, the press will make more of an effort to get it right, even if it means sacrificing the narrative they have worked so hard to cultivate.


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