“We all talked about it, and we all decided that we had to break out from our political prison. It took time, but we succeeded in doing it.” – Kári Jónasson, former editor of Fréttablaðið, on moving the Icelandic media away from the control of political parties, months before being replaced by former Independence Party PM Þorsteinn Pálsson.
Talk to anyone about the way Icelandic papers used to be, even as recently as twenty years ago, and they will invariably mention the presence of “party papers” – newspapers owned and operated by different political parties. Many bemoan those days, while at the same time celebrating the diverse and independent media Iceland now enjoys.
But now Iceland’s newspapers are all, in one way or the other, in the hands of Independence Party players. A conservative party supported by only 41.6% of the population (according to a Gallup poll from January 2006), now controls nearly 100% of the Icelandic language daily periodicals, and a sizeable portion of all other media in the country.
The Corporate Giant Goes Political
Ari Edwald, the managing director of media giant 365, was formerly an Independence Party political advisor to the Minister of Justice and the Minister of Fisheries. 365 owns, among other things, the newspapers Fréttablaðið and DV. Edwald is also the managing director of the Confederation of Icelandic Employers, and also was on the program committee of a 2001 conference entitled, “Tax Competition: An Opportunity for Iceland?,” which was organised by Independence Party player Hannes Hólmstein Gissurarson and featured Davíð Oddsson as a keynote speaker.
Beyond Fréttablaðið and DV, 365 owns television stations Stöð 2 and Sirkus. Of the only television stations not owned by 365 – SkjárEinn and RÚV – only the former is independent (albeit owned by newly-privatised telecommunications giant Síminn). RÚV is owned by the state, and the Independence Party, with the Progressive Party, currently holds the majority of seats in parliament.
Of course, the owner of a media giant being pro-business doesn’t necessarily conflict with editorial content. But in 365’s case, it’s the editors who aren’t likely to conflict with the interests of their owners.
Þorsteinn Pálsson, who was named editor of the Fréttablaðið on the first of February, was Prime Minister of Iceland for the Independence Party from 1987 to 1988 and is today a member of a committee placed in charge of reviewing Iceland’s constitution. This second detail is interesting, as the committee was largely formed in response to the President of Iceland’s refusal to sign a controversial media bill that would have broken up 365.
Pálsson also distinguished himself as Minister of Fisheries, a position he was appointed to by then-Prime Minister Davíð Oddsson in 1991, as one of the leading proponents of whaling. Repeatedly battling for the practise in the halls of parliament, he most famously stated, “Continuing over-protection of whale stocks is a dangerous and irresponsible course to pursue” in 1996. Pálsson apparently still feels this way. A story run by Vísir.is (the online service for Fréttablaðið) featured a story on 7 February called “Demand is great: Whale meat is sold out,” which quoted the chairman of the Society of Whalers as saying that he was more or less out of whale meat, although there “might still be some in the stores.”
A curious quote from a curious source, considering the fact that according to a survey conducted in Iceland by the International Fund for Animal Welfare last October, only 7.6% of Icelanders said they bought whale meat once, only 3.9% bought it twice and only 2.5% bought it three times. Add to this the fact that unsold whale meat from 2003 was still sitting in cold storage in the spring of 2005, and the story loses even more credibility. But it stands to reason, coming from a paper edited by the man who once told Iceland, “It is not a question of if but when we will begin whaling again.”
One of the more puzzling chang-es made under Pálsson’s editorialship was the departure of Guðmundur Magnússon as Fréttablaðið’s representative to the Icelandic Journalists Union – on the same day that Pálsson became editor of Fréttablaðið. The union reports that no explanation has been given for his termination, but the last column Magnússon wrote, “The government receives instructions,” was exceptionally critical of the government’s involvement in the media.
Sources outside of Fréttablaðið see Pálsson as already taking the paper towards his political views. Inside sources at Fréttablaðið claim that, as of our press time, Pálsson had not yet started work, and the changes at the paper are either coincidental, or indicate the general mood of the organisation—that the hiring of Pálsson demonstrated a long-standing undisclosed lean towards the Independence Party values.
As for DV, one of their two new editors, Björgvin Guðmundsson, is a former journalist for Morgunblaðið and was previously the chairman of Heimdallur, the society for Young Independence Party members. Heimdallur’s website, Frelsi.is, has touted such ideas as the wage difference between the sexes is due to more women than men staying home with children, and that foreigners should not be given Icelandic citizenship unless they pass a primary school exam in Icelandic.
Social Democratic MP Mörður Árnason is among those who have expressed concerns about Edwald, Pálsson and Guðmundsson and their connections to the Independence Party.
“When a newspaper calls itself independent,” he told the Grapevine, “but hires a former Independence Party chairman as its editor, questions pop up regarding the policy of the paper, and the readers will naturally demand answers. I don’t think [Pálsson] can entirely be trusted.”
Árnason emphasised that he felt Pálsson’s position on the constitution committee was a conflict of interest.
“I think he should consider resigning from the committee position,” he said. “The fear arises that these connections will influence the editorial policies of the paper, in the case of both Fréttablaðið and DV. After all, what’s in a paper is just as important as what’s not.”
Árnason has written on the subject on his website (www.mordur.is), in response to which, Morgunblaðið devoted their 3 February Staksteinar column to the subject, where they wondered what Árnason must think of the media bill now.
With Edwald, Pálsson and Guðmundsson – all staunch Independence Party supporters – at the helm of Iceland’s largest media conglomerate, and with state media under the control of the same party, this leaves us with Iceland’s two other papers, Morgunblaðið and Blaðið, to provide an alternative. Unfortunately, an alternative voice is not likely to be forthcoming.
Grand Old Paper
Long considered an “Independence Party newspaper,” Morgunblaðið’s editor is Styrmir Gunnarsson. In 2003, Gunnarsson published a long article in his newspaper defending Hannes Hólmstein Gissurarson, a key Independence Party player accused of plagiarism for a book he “wrote” about Nobel Laureate Halldór Laxness. Gunnarsson has also never been shy about his affection for Davíð Oddsson, having told the AP in 2004, “David Oddsson has succeeded in moulding our society … Because he has not wavered from his policies, because of his way of governing, and because of his personality.”
A source who spoke to the Grapevine under the condition of strict anonymity told us that, “It is a long-term practise of the editor of Morgunblaðið to assign sources that journalists can and cannot contact.”
Newcomer Blaðið is directed by Sigurður G. Guðjónsson, who used to be the managing director of Norðurljós before it became incorporated into 365. While Blaðið was originally thought of as an alternative to other newspapers in the country, it is now 50% owned by Árvakur – the company that owns Morgunblaðið, and from its founding it never claimed that it would offer a different approach to the news than other papers.
In the interests of full disclosure, it should be noted that 50% of the owners of our paper – guys who sign our paychecks – are members of the Independence Party.
CORRECTION: Kári Jónasson did not step down as editor of Fréttablaðið; he’s the co-editor. And Ari Edwald has left his position as chairman of the Confederation of Icelandic Employers.