LICENSE APPROVED? - The Reykjavik Grapevine

LICENSE APPROVED?

LICENSE APPROVED?

Published May 28, 2004

The walk to Bogi’s office is along wide corridors, covered with black and white photographs. I remark upon these images when we reach Bogis’ office in the heart of the newsroom.

“We line the corridors with photographs from Iceland’s history. This is to remind people who work here of the responsibility they bear. We were there on 17th June when independence was declared. We are not only the cultural life but we are woven into the fabric of Icelandic society.”

I asked whether ‘Inform, Educate and Entertain’ are still workable in today’s Iceland (see previous article).

“Yes, they are. You have to provide a mix, you cannot rely on one thing. If you are providing purely entertainment then there is no point being a public service broadcaster and if you wish only to educate you will soon lose your license. If the right mix can be achieved and you strive to produce the best in each area, then you will be a successful TV station. We take a license fee from every TV household in Iceland; they have the right to be entertained. And so when people say to me the RUV should not be showing Sex in the City, I say to them, ‘Bollocks’. We should provide entertainment as of high a quality as possible.”

Bogi smiles

I mention that is not exactly how the sainted Lord Reith (founder of the BBC) would have phrased his reply. Bogi laughs and it occurs to me that I have rarely seen him smile. Presenting the news in Iceland is a serious business and the four anchors at RUV not only take their work seriously, but are seen to take it seriously. It’s the way it is in Iceland. Away from the camera Bogi is every inch the modern news editor. He wears jeans and a shirt with colourful braces. On a hanger his jacket and tie are ready for his on-air appearances. Throughout the interview his eye wonders to a monitor fixed to the wall that is tuned to Sky and breaking news. His walls have pictures and memorabilia from his twenty-five years as a RUV journalist.
“I have learnt through my news career that change comes and comes fast. As a young reporter, I stood in front of the Berlin Wall saying that it would take at least another 25 years before it came down. Three years later it was down!”

Channel 2 keep us on our toes

I first visited RUV in the autumn of 2003 and I remind Bogi that when we last met it looked like Channel 2 was going to disappear entirely through the likely bankruptcy of its parent company. Is he glad they were saved?

“I was here before competition came along and we improved enormously when they arrived. There is no fun playing football when there is only one team on the field. It is always good to have someone to measure yourself against. If they had gone under they would have been sorely missed. Over the last ten years the output of domestic news from our two newsrooms has increased hugely and the viewing figures show that the public want it. We see Channel 2 not only as our opposition but also as serious journalists. They keep us on our toes.”

…but it has to be in Icelandic

We are sitting in the offices of one of the last truly independent national broadcasters in the world, with Rupert Murdoch´s Sky News channel providing the international news in the background. I ask about the current debate over media ownership in Iceland.

“To date, we have had no serious media law in this country. Effectively you could buy a license to broadcast with no restrictions whatsoever, no money for the license, the only requirement from the government was that it had to be broadcast in Icelandic. When Baugur (Iceland’s leading supermarket conglomerate) bought into Northern Lights Corporation, I don’t for a second believe that they had a grand plan to take over media in Iceland. It’s more a matter of them being there when the opportunity presented itself. But they have developed a taste for the media. People have become scared when they realised that Baugur owns all news media in this country, with two exceptions (RUV and Morgunblaðið). And people do believe that with such enormous monetary power, Baugur have become too big. And, yes, I personally do believe that they have become too big.”

Conservative commies?

“What’s more is that this has forced the politicians finally to look at RUV’s own contract. We are basically governed by a media act of 1985. This act provides that it should be re-examined within three years. The political parties have not been able to reach agreement on what RUV should be and, as it was not an acute political problem, it has been left alone.”

I suggest that as RUV is funded by the state it will naturally support the government of the day.

“Yes and no. We have people who perceive our programming critical of the established order, these people call us left wing. The opposition says that we are run by the Conservative Party, and the Independence party says that there are nothing but commies here! Look, we employ 350-plus people and of course some will have their own agenda. But I hazard a guess that 99% of our journalists want nothing to do with party politics.”

License to bill

Would he welcome a review of RUV’s contract as per the 1985 Act?

“Of course, this would be the next logical step. We may well not like the result, but we have for a very long time maintained that this is absolutely essential. That the owner (The State) decides himself what he wants to do with this company that he owns, and this he has not done. It is almost twenty years since the act and it is long overdue.”

His eyes have been wandering off to the monitor from time to time and suddenly he grabs the control and turns up the volume. I assume that some global catastrophe is about to disturb our interview. Instead we stop to watch a few minutes of highlights of the Spurs’ game from the weekend.

“I’ve always supported this team,” he smiles “ but they’ve sure put my loyalty to the test this season.”

“Gott kvöld…”

To finish, I ask what the future holds, specifically the threat that digital technology poses RUV.
“Without a doubt Digital TV will be available here in Iceland within the next five years. It will bring greater choice at a lower price and we will see more competitors entering the market. At the same time we will see fragmentation of stations and what they are offering. Technology will see people watching TV through their mobile phones and PC’s. It will be challenging. The country will have to decide whether it wants a public service broadcaster. There are those who suggest that the company should be sold to the free market and our future is by no means certain. But if we go, there will be a huge gap that will never be filled.”

It was time for him to work on the evening bulletin and he goes to discuss the line up with his colleagues.
The next time I see him is on television, jacket and tie in place, and saying in his sombre voice the sentence Icelanders have been hearing once a day for as long as they can remember: “Gott kvöld. Í fréttum er þetta helst.”


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