From Iceland — Is Icelandic Media Being Held Hostage By Its Owners?

Is Icelandic Media Being Held Hostage By Its Owners?

Published November 2, 2009

Is Icelandic Media Being Held Hostage By Its Owners?

Everyone knows it. The smallness of Iceland leads to almost everything being contaminated by personal connections and considerations. Of course, the same goes for the nation’s media—it’s affected. Now, is the Icelandic media being held hostage by its owners and their interests, whatever those may be? Are there effective attempts to control and shape the local discourse?
Since last year’s TOTAL ECONOMIC COLLAPSE, a lot of people have pointed their fingers squarely at the local media. Critics say that there was very little critical analysis being done in the build up to the fall, and that local journalists neglected to review and investigate what was going on due to political affiliations and/or owner interests. A recent survey by the local Market and Media Researching Agency shows that Icelanders’ faith in their media averages at 18.9 percent. In comparison, 35.8 percent of the nation express no faith in their media.
This can’t be normal, can it? At least we didn’t think so. So we consulted with a scholar, Sociology Professor Þorbjörn Broddason, who teaches media and journalism at the University of Iceland.
How does the Icelandic media work?
Icelandic mass media in many ways resembles every other media system. You’ve got all the ingredients. In the printed press, we presently have newspapers Morgunblaðið and Fréttablaðið, tabloid DV and the business centred Viðskiptablaðið. The interesting thing is that all these papers wound up in the hands of entrepreneurs who had very strong interests to protect the Icelandic financial system. The media used to be hand in glove with the political system, what with party press and all, then they became hand in glove with the financial system.
The owners of the printed press are simply different families of entrepreneurs; it’s all in the hands of people who have invested in what is written. That doesn’t mean that all journalists are bent or corrupt, we simply have to realise that they are all employed by people who like to see the news presented in a certain fashion. The only thing that should be totally independent is the state run TV and radio, which is supposedly owned by the people. So this is the scene.
Some argue that even though there are reputedly no more party papers, the current media is still dependant on and a part of large power structures and actively takes sides…  
Absolutely. I think so. It’s in a subtle manner, but they do take sides. There is no denying that there are strong ties between the Independence Party and Morgunblaðið. It’s been the organ of the party since its inception. Fréttablaðið is constantly being accused of being in service of the Social Democrats, or perhaps it’s the Social Democrats that are in the power of the owners of Fréttablaðið. The media is simply an integral part of the ongoing power struggles.
As someone who’s studied the Icelandic media environment for years, do you feel ownership is an important factor?
Ownership is extremely important and always has been, simply because it interferes with freedom of expression. People are always looking over their shoulder—even if they don’t admit it, even if they don’t admit it to themselves. They are held hostage by the owner; it is the owner who hires them. The mass media may not be lying to you, but they may be giving you a certain version of reality.
For example, we were lead to believe that banking was the only thing that mattered in the country. There was a lack of critical analysis about this. More strongly put, there was complete absence of critical analysis. And when there were any doubts raised, someone would jump up and complain, even make threats. Either by advertising boycotts or threatening phone calls.
The local media is often accused being subjective. Why is that?
Is it accused, or is it true? Morgunblaðið is obviously always read with its party allegiance in mind, and Fréttablaðið has in recent years been accused of being in the service of their previous owners, the Baugur family. And why is that? Because there appears to be an affinity between these parties. Assume they do have these ties; then they should admit and come clean that even in the news there can be bias. In every Icelandic news story, there will be this bias.
But you have to realise that no media can achieve total objectivity. Honesty, and the search of objectivity is what you can demand of every journalist.
Davíð Oddsson (former Central Bank chairman and PM of Iceland for the Independence Party) has been appointed editor of Morgunblaðið. People were not happy. Why?
He is totally enmeshed in practically every major problem that the Icelandic nation has encountered during the last twenty years. You simply cannot accept him as an editor; it’s no use saying that he is not going to interfere in this and that. To me, it’s a tragic blow to Icelandic mass communication that this was allowed to happen.
He was hired because the owners admire his undisputed qualities. They agree with his opinions and they know he is a strong advocate of their interests. They do it at the cost of the credibility of the paper, and a paper that has lost credibility is not of very much use.
Why choose such a polarizing figure?
It’s incomprehensible. Except that they seem to be focused on their particular interests and they do not have any inkling about journalism, they do not care about journalism and they simply do not know what journalism is. It’s very sad. Morgunblaðið and the people would have been much better off had he not been hired.
Finally: Is Icelandic media corrupt?
No, the media is not corrupt, in the true sense of the word. It is very far from perfection, but not corrupt. Icelandic journalists are decent people doing their best.
I don’t think Icelandic media is in any sense less professional than other countries’ media. Our problem is the smallness of the market and the proximity of our relations. How would you think, as a journalist, when every mass medium in this small country is laying off people? Would you rock the boat, would you print nasty things about the owners? No, you would think twice. You’ve got a mortgage and kids in kindergarten. This has simply always made life difficult for Icelandic journalists. 

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