From Iceland — The News Is Getting Briefer

The News Is Getting Briefer

Published January 20, 2014

The News Is Getting Briefer
Gabríel Benjamin
Photo by
Ólöf Erla Einarsdóttir

On any given weekend, Icelandic children are likely to gather around their television set at seven in the morning to watch ‘Small Potatoes’ and ‘The Moomins’ on RÚV, while their parents get up and make breakfast, listening to music from centuries past on the ‘Girni, grúsk og gloríur’ show on RÚV’s radio station Rás 1.

During the week, people tune in to Rás 1 to listen to programmes about the arts, culture and social issues, to Rás 2 for news, current affairs and pop and rock music, and to RÚV for a variety of domestic and international shows, sports events, news and films. But with recent cuts to the service’s budget, RÚV’s programming is sure to change.

Thirty-nine employees of Iceland’s National Broadcasting Service, RÚV, were fired on the spot on November 27, and 21 more people lost their jobs in the following weeks. Those laid off immediately were not given the option of working through their notice period and could not even access their email to alert their colleagues they had been made redundant.

This marks the biggest round of layoffs since RÚV was founded in 1930, bringing its total number of staff down to 240 from 342 in 2009. This may jeopardise RÚV’s mission to “promote the Icelandic language, Icelandic history, and Iceland’s cultural heritage” and “honour basic democratic rules, human rights, and the freedom of speech and opinion,” according to its charter.

RÚV is to Icelanders what the BBC is to the UK and NPR is to the US—a government- funded source of entertainment, culture and dependable news. Through its radio stations and TV station, RÚV has broadcast numerous historical moments such as Halldór Laxness accepting the Nobel prize for literature in 1955, the 1969 lunar landing, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the 2008–2009 Icelandic riots.

The Cost Of A Balanced Budget

The Director of RÚV, Páll Magnúson, preemptively laid employees off in order to meet 500 million ISK worth of cuts to the organisation suggested in the government’s 2014 budget proposal, which also includes cuts to the Icelandic Film Fund and the National Hospital. The cuts, which equal a tenth of RÚV’s budget, were alluded to in August by Vigdís Hauksdóttir, MP for the Progressive Party and the chair of the budget committee, who had recently been misquoted by RÚV. “I think an unnatural amount of money goes to RÚV,” she said, “especially when they don’t do a better job of reporting the news.”

Páll started his layoffs from the bottom up to, he said, to deliver the best service possible with the funds available. This meant focusing on firing low- to mid-level employees, with Rás 1 taking the biggest hit, losing half of its staff and most of its music programmes. Overall, at least 14 programmes have been discontinued and replaced with archival material.

A Wave Of Protests

More than 400 people protested the layoffs outside of RÚV’s office the day after they were announced, claiming these dismissals were premature, politically fuelled, and hollowing out a communally-owned organisation that plays an important role in Icelandic society.

These points where echoed by a flash mob which gathered at the Smáralind shopping centre and sang “Heyr, himna smiður,” a choir song commonly heard at funerals, and were also reiterated in several Youtube videos that featured musicians, artists and celebrities speaking about RÚV’s importance in both their personal upbringing and the cultural development of the nation.

Ingi Þór Ingibergsson, one of the technicians who was fired, made a statement during his last radio broadcast by playing Johnny Paycheck’s song “Take This Job And Shove It.”

Brynhildur Björnsdóttir, who works at Rás 1, will be let go in February and is uncertain what she’ll do after that. Her show, ‘Leynifélagið,’ (“The Secret Society”) is the only children’s radio show currently broadcast by RÚV, and she said teachers regularly play it during the children’s lunch break. “Listening to radio stimulates children’s imagination in a way that television can’t,” she said. “It helps them become more proficient in Icelandic and better prepared to speak their mind clearly.”

Guðfinnur Sigurvinsson, who had worked at RÚV for a little under ten years and was sacked from Rás 2’s current affairs programme ‘Síðdegisútvarpið,’ was not happy with Páll’s layoff methodology. “I think it was disgraceful how some of the most experienced members of staff were selected to be fired,” he said, “but I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone else. I do question why so many people from the news teams have been let go, but not a single person from the marketing or advertising departments. I believe we should re-evaluate how big those departments need to be, and in general, if RÚV should be competing with private channels with entertainment shows.”

Guðfinnur is working on a Master’s degree in public administration, and dove straight into his exams when he was made redundant. He said he doesn’t harbour any hard feelings over being fired. “Of course it’s terrible to pack your bags and walk out the door when you’ve worked somewhere for so long that it doesn’t feel like work. It’s your second home and the people you work with become a very rich part of your life. I’m very thankful for the time I‘ve spent with them,” he said.

“I’ve been touched with all the messages of support I’ve gotten from strangers since getting fired. Almost everywhere I turn people say how much they care about the radio.”

Þórir Ingvarson, a RÚV technician, added: “People who you had worked with for years and practically considered family were suddenly gone. It was stressful, but we have to try to make do. We had already gone through numerous cost-saving measures in years past, so at this point, cuts inevitably mean layoffs.”

Páll’s Defence

Páll appeared on the Kastljós talk show the day after the cuts were announced, defending the layoffs. He said that it was naïve, however, to expect anything other than mass redundancies with 500 million ISK in cuts to RÚV. “Two lines in the financial budget can easily turn into 39 immediate layoffs,” he said. He also rejected the idea that firing the staff had been a charade to deter the government from further cuts down the line.

“The people on the news team talk about the importance of informing society and promoting democracy, the staff at RÁS 1 talk of upholding culture,” Páll said, “but our charter binds us to do all of it—inform, educate and entertain.” Thus he defended his decision to fire staff from the music, cultural and news departments while allowing entertainment and game shows that compete with shows from private commercial channels such as Stöð 2 and Skjár 1 to stay on the air.

He did not believe that reducing the wages of managerial staff as had been done in 2008 would have had any demonstrable effect on the layoffs. “It might be symbolic,” he said, “but to me, it’s just farcical and I don’t buy the argument behind it.” The combined salaries of the top eleven executives amount to 115 million ISK per year.

Páll embarked on the layoffs after speaking to numerous MPs and ministers, feeling certain that the government’s proposed cuts would not change prior to the budget’s approval. “I’m hoping that after people have seen the measures we’ve had to take to react to the proposed state budget as it is today,” he said, “that they will not take additional funds from us.”

Controversy Abounds

Since the layoffs there have been heated discussions in parliament, with the government trying to save face by reducing the cuts in following drafts of the state budget. The Minister of Education, Science and Culture Illugi Gunnarsson said that “RÚV’s board is responsible for running the organisation,” but refused to comment in particular about the mass layoffs.

Two members of RÚV’s board, Pétur Gunnarsson and Björg Eva Erlendsdóttir, voted against Páll’s proposed measures, with Björg stating that they were too vague when presented to the board. “The proposal did not, for example, mention the method by which people would be fired or how it would affect the programming,” she said.

When the reality of the budget became apparent, Pétur and Björg thought too much internal production had been cut, in particular material relating to RÚV’s charter. “At the same time that cultural and musical programmes were dropped, a gambling show has been allowed to keep running on Saturdays,” she said. “We feel the focus was completely wrong and that the measures the board agreed to were not the ones implemented.”

On December 17, Páll resigned as the director, citing a lack of trust from RÚV’s board. Although some critics rejoiced at this turn of events, it has left the ship sailing in turbulent waters without a captain.

Going forward, it’s unclear whether RÚV will be capable of honouring its charter. Páll himself said that RÚV has already become at least 25% less capable of doing so since the crisis in 2008. The charter is up for review in the New Year, and only time will tell whether and how it changes, and what effect it will have on the services RÚV provides.

Sidebar: Timeline of the Cuts

RÚV has gone through a series of cuts in the past five years, with the staff numbers roughly three quarters what they used to be. In meeting the cutbacks, RÚV reduced overhead and imported fewer and less expensive foreign shows, but there were also redundancies.

November 2008: 21 staff redundancies, 24 contractors released.

December 2008: All staff members’ wages were reduced, with those earning more taking on a proportionally larger reduction.

January 2010: 30 staff redundancies.

December 2013: 60 redundancies, including staff and contractors.

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