From Iceland — Thirty Minutes with Róbert Marshall

Thirty Minutes with Róbert Marshall

Published April 8, 2005

Thirty Minutes with Róbert Marshall

Unlike a prominent American journalist, Marshall resigned immediately. He has since rebuilt his reputation. He spoke with the Grapevine from Bilbao, where he was attending an annual meeting of the European Union of Journalists.

Grapevine: So you’re off representing us union members? Did the Journalist’s Union play a role in getting rid of Auðun Georg Ólafsson, the appointed news director for RÚV with extremely conspicuous ties to Prime Minister Halldór Ásgrímsson?

Róbert Marshall: Absolutely. The campaign that we waged with the reporters at RÚV was extremely important in this matter. And also it showed what the international support means to us.

What we wanted was that professionalism and experience and credibility would be the key issues that those in hiring the radio news would have in mind. With that one interview the Icelandic journalists showed what we value. (Referring to an RÚV interview in which Ólafsson repeatedly contradicted himself regarding his actions and contacts in government.)

Grapevine: If we’re speaking to a foreign audience, is it fair to call you the Icelandic Dan Rather?

Marshall: [Laughing] I wouldn’t go so far. The decision that I made was based as it has to be based: on your own personal condition and your feelings about your status as a journalist. The first and foremost of all principles in journalism is that you do not tell the public anything that is wrong.

We saw that in the interview on Friday: the absolute principle is to always tell the truth. You have to show people that you really mean what you’re saying. That it really means something to you to be truthful and to be accurate.

If and when you’re not, it’s going to cost you.

Grapevine: That makes sense, but I worry about punishing the one journalist who bothers to investigate. As I see it, no journalist in this country reported a word on what was going on with Iraq. We don’t punish them for leaving the public in the dark, for not doing their jobs.
Marshall: I wasn’t making the precedent that every journalist that ever filed a wrong story, who made an honest mistake, had to resign. In this instance, I was the worst journalist to make this error because of the history I have with the government. Because of the media bill last year. Because of the high profile with this case.

But it’s true… Nobody denies that on both sides of the Atlantic there was a campaign waged to shield the truth from the public. We’ve seen that the media both in America and in Britain failed. We’ve seen that the media failed in reporting the decision-making and also in reporting the results.

There are still two lines of deceit that are lingering on. One is that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction. The other is that he had links to Al-Qaeda and Osama. And those misleading lines are still lingering. They still believe that.

Grapevine: Then I guess you’re saying journalists aren’t doing their job. How is the union going to fix that?

Marshall: It’s something the union should be concerned about. We should be concerned about the politicians who spin the truth away from the public. It goes against the principles of democracy. You should have decision-making that is open and clear and plain for everyone to see and something happened in this matter that made people forget this.

In my quitting I had taken into account that I’d been talking about higher standards in Iceland for two years now. When you’re asking for higher standards you have to follow what you say.

As president (of the union) it would be extremely difficult to report my first wrong story and then just say sorry. But I feel my reputation is restored.

Grapevine: Going back to local journalists. I consistently see the Alþingi voting one way, and the public going the other way in opinion polls. Should the press be serving as a middle man, telling the politicians what people think, and the people what politicians are doing? Is something broken here?

Marshall: There’s a lot to be said about the statements politicians made, that they shouldn’t be swayed by public opinion, they should lead the public. But a government that doesn’t listen to the public, it’s a government that exists in a vacuum. I think that’s what we’ve been seeing. There doesn’t seem to be a link between the government and the public. The reason for that is not enough access to the policies, not enough access to the policy makers. It’s an expensive problem. It complicates the election process. There’s a huge gap between what the political parties are offering and what the people want.

Grapevine: Let’s talk Baugur. When foreign journalists recently came to Iceland, they were comparing this country to Italy, saying Baugur Chief Exec Jón Asgeir Johanesson was like Berlusconi.

Marshall: The difference between Iceland and Italy is that we have a public broadcasting company. And there are no discussions about privatising it. Whereas they’re privatising RAI in Italy.

My point is that while it is ensured that we have diversity in the Icelandic media, we need not worry. That doesn’t mean we can allow companies like Baugur to expand without any limits. While we have Morgunblaðið, while we have RÚV and both news offices there, we’re going to be okay.

Grapevine: So what would it take for you to put forward your own media bill?

Marshall: We are not going to present our own media bill. We have stated our point of view. We have stated that banning cross ownership doesn’t fit the Icelandic market. Because it’s small. There has to be a motive for people in the financial sector to invest in the media. They have to make money, as capitalistic as that sounds.

I have no problem with companies making money from the news. It means we can apply for jobs at different stations in Iceland. A financially weak media company weakens editorials. If a news office is suffering due to lack of money it immediately affects the china wall that blocks news from advertising. It is a good thing when companies that are in the business of selling news make good money.

It would be very good if we could see more stability than there has been in the last few years. We’ve seen extreme instability in Norðurljós or 365 and it directly affects the quality of the journalism. It means fewer jobs, fewer reporters.

When we see a new media bill, that would be something. It would have to try to promote more stability in the market.

Grapevine: A lot of journalists who came here to cover Fischer are talking about the Baugur-owned 365 media company, Stöd 2, your old station, and the way they blocked other news agencies from getting an interview with Bobby Fischer. From what I hear, it sounds like an extreme violation of ethics.

Marshall: It’s something we haven’t discussed here at this conference. But… I’m not sure that it’s in violation of any code of ethics. But in competition between the Icelandic media some might argue that this was taking it a step too far.

What I was more surprised about and what was a mystery to me was why would anybody want an exclusive interview with a completely nuts individual like that who just rants and nothing that comes out of his mouth makes any sense.
Grapevine: Yes, I guess so. Makes you wonder why would anybody import him.

Marshall: I find the whole matter an embarrassment for the Icelandic nation. It’s an outrage. We should never have gone this far with it. I can hear from people following this from other countries. None of them understand why we did this. None of them make any distinction between him appearing in Iceland in 1972 and the hatred of Jewish people and the unbelievable nonsense that comes out of this man. They see the whole thing as one package. And the attempts of the Icelandic authorities to isolate these things… that he’s something special to the local history, that just doesn’t make sense to them.

It looks as though we are agreeing with him. And it has already hurt the reputation of Iceland internationally. That’s me speaking as an individual, not as the president of the journalistic union.

Grapevine: Regarding Fischer?

Marshall: Yeah. But you can quote me.

Róbert Marshall hosts a weekly radio show on Tölstöðin, from 1-3 on Saturdays.

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