From Iceland — Transparency Is The Answer

Transparency Is The Answer

Published October 14, 2011

Transparency Is The Answer

Jóhann Hauksson is an award-winning journalist who worked for many years for the newspaper DV, writing mostly about Iceland’s political scene. He has just published a new book, ‘Þræðir valdsins: Kunningjaveldi, aðstöðubrask og hrun Íslands’ (“Threads Of Power: Nepotism, abused positions and Iceland’s collapse”), which covers a subject many Icelanders are all too familiar with: the culture of nepotism, cronyism and corruption in Iceland. The Grapevine got in touch with Jóhann to ask him what he learned in the writing of this book, and what can be done to fight back.
I understand that you’ve been writing about politics in Iceland for a number of years, culminating in your winning a Journalist of the Year award in 2010. What initially sparked your interest in politics?
I studied politics and sociology a long time ago. Incidentally, I became a journalist. It was almost natural for me to be interested in politics. But after some time, I began to feel strongly that there was something “rotten in the state of Denmark,” and started thinking about corruption and cronyism. It was against all off-hand experience and evidence that Iceland was rated amongst the most “clean” countries in the world, as shown in Transparency International surveys. I started writing about corruption in late 2005 to early 2006.
It seems to me that some Icelanders are bored with the entire topic of corruption in Iceland; that is, they’re aware of it, and don’t seem particularly surprised when corruption is brought to light. What do you think contributes to this?

I think you have a point there. The thing is that the general public have an unsatisfying access to information. Our society is still closed and it still lacks transparency. I am trying to help the readers of my book to clarify our cronyism, nepotism and corruption. In decades of corrupt practice in politics and business, we have “cultivated” an elite class who runs the country, both in business and politics.
This is bad for democracy. If the majority of the voters are loyal and submissive to this elite, nothing will change. Ordinary people will reaffirm this situation in their daily manners. They are afraid of losing jobs or other repercussions if they defy the authorities and other powerful people of the elite. Open discourse will be suppressed. But this part of our civic culture is invisible in a way. Invisible power is the strongest form of power. It is taken for granted. It is in ourselves. It is our habits in everyday life. We are like the fish in the ocean, who do not know that they are wet.
When you were writing your book, were you ever contacted by anyone and encouraged to stop?
No. But I am aware that some eminent people in business and politics are not content with my new book. I guess the readers will wait and see if they will find some weak points in my evidence and arguments. But nobody tried to stop me. And after all, there is no reason to be afraid as a journalist here in Iceland. I have defied powerful people and been driven away from at least two jobs as a journalist and reporter. But when you feel that losing a job is not the end of the world, you sense a strong feeling of freedom. My message to young journalists is that whenever they are certain and they know their data and evidence is true, they should also have the courage to publish it.
Was it difficult to be able to trace the connections between e.g. business and politics? Just how publicly available is this information?
It is good to stick to some hypothesis about the relations between business and politics. Janine Wedel, an American anthropologist, has written a stimulating and thought provoking book about the new “shadow elite.” She calls those persons “flexions,” because they blur the boundaries between private and public interests. Instead of being constantly involved in conflicts of interests, they rearrange things and the outcome is “coincidence of interests.” In times of extensive privatisation, the risk of corruption near the border between public and private interests increases. This hypothetical model is useful to look at corrupt relations and cronyism in Iceland.  Wedel’s work has been very useful for me and I use her arguments in my book.
This is like a jigsaw puzzle. You uncover something that becomes a scandal.  You arrange the pieces you have and you will see how things clear up in your puzzle. The hypothesis and your theory help you to discover the missing parts. Your theory or hypothesis and your evidence are interrelated. If you get new data or evidence, it either confirms that your hypothesis is right or it will be refuted.
Was there anything you learned that surprised you? And what do you think was the most damning revelation you uncovered?
William K. Black, who captured and put to jail 600 criminal banksters in US in the Savings & Loan scandal many years ago, has told us to call things by their proper name. Fraud is fraud. When FL Group and Landsbanki donated 55 million ISK to the Independence Party in 2006 (less to other parties); this was a kickback, even bribery. They wanted the politicians to privatise the geothermal- and hydropower companies. When the media uncovered this in 2009, the Independence Party decided to return the money. In my view, the leader of the party thereby confessed that the money was dirty. In my book I try to show this and make things transparent. I don’t think this would be without serious consequences for the leadership of a political party in other civilised countries.
What solutions do you propose to undo the tangle of nepotism and cronyism in Iceland?
I think Eva Joly is right. She has fought corruption in France as a judge and an inquisitor. She and other well-known judges have put forward a principle for reconstructing justice: “Transparency without freedom is an infringement of human rights. Freedom coupled with opacity is an open door for crime.”
So transparency is probably the solution to our problem, at least partly. I guess it would be good for this little population to introduce and implement some international framework of rules under multinational supervision.  
“In decades of corrupt practice in politics and business, we have “cultivated” an elite class who runs the country, both in business and politics. This is bad for democracy. If the majority of the voters are loyal and submissive to this elite, nothing will change.”

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