From Iceland — Molehills Out of Mountains

Molehills Out of Mountains

Published August 19, 2005

Molehills Out of Mountains

There are press conferences you want to be at because you know something historical will be revealed, something that will stay with you for the rest of your life. It’s not about being one of a handful of people who are the first to know – it’s the quasi-spiritual experience of witnessing the birth of private information made public, some statistic, event, or decision brought to light that will shake us to our cores. The announcement of the height of a newly re-measured mountain is not one of those press conferences.
But we’re there anyway: three cameramen, two anchors, a couple of photographers, and a couple of journalists, myself included. We’re standing in front of the closed doors of Stjórnaráð, the Prime Minister’s office, waiting to hear what the new height of Iceland’s tallest mountain, Hvannadalshnjúkur, is after going 100 years without being re-measured.
Frankly, I was a little surprised to hear it would be Prime Minister Halldór Ásgrímsson making the announcement. Apart from the fact that Ásgrímsson seldom holds press conferences, this sort of stuff is more like the President’s job – visiting foreign dignitaries, shaking hands with Icelandic Canadians, and telling the public how tall the mountains are. But lately, that’s the sort of thing Ásgrímsson’s been doing. Not to give the man a hard time: maybe he needs a little down time doing cushy jobs like this after his public thrashing in the media over the Landsbanki sale scandal (see “Interview With Sigríður Dögg Auðunsdóttir” in Issue 8), and after his near-miss on signing up for the Coalition of the Willing with a nation that was completely unwilling. (See the interview with Róbert Marshall, who resigned from a position at Stöð 2 after a false report on Ásgrímsson, issue 4.) But that’s probably not what’s going through the minds of the cameramen and anchors as they complain amongst themselves about the cold, the wind, and the wait.
A small crowd begins to form behind us, and I do mean small: maybe eight or nine people, waiting with us. In the atmosphere of boredom, a journalist for one paper strikes up a conversation with a cameraman for another. They talk about their families, and then the journalist asks the cameraman, “So what do you think?” gesturing at Stjórnaráð’s door.
The cameraman smiles and shrugs. “I don’t know,” he says, “I think maybe it’s shrunk by say, three metres?”
The journalist smiles back. “I’ll say five,” he says.
No monetary figure is given, but they shake hands. Ah, geological news betting. Probably the nerdiest form of gambling there is.
Behind me, another cameraman asks the journalist with him, “So, are you looking forward to the announcement?”
“Yeah, I’m dying of excitement,” he says flatly.
“I think it will be 2,127 metres tall!” yells a spectator from behind us. A mountain growing by 28 metres – now that would be news.
And then the moment we’ve been waiting for is upon us. The doors swing open and out step both Ásgrímsson and Minister of the Environment Sigríður Anna Þórðardóttir. The photographers rush up to the front, Dictaphones are thrust forward, and that great moment is born:
“The height of Hvannadalshnjúkur is 2,110 metres,” says the Prime Minister, smiling, “So what we’ve learned as children has changed,” referring to the fact that Icelandic textbooks list Hvannadalshnjúkur as being 2,119 metres tall.
“I’ve been up on the peak and look forward to going back,” added Minister Þórðardóttir happily. The press nods, then turns back to Ásgrímsson.
“Have you been on the peak?” a reporter asks him.
“Yes, and I look forward to going back,” he says, and the crowd chuckles. “We will be conducting more measurements like these in the future. Thank you.”
And with that, they turn their backs and head back into Stjórnaráð. The press disperses.
“Did you get that?” a journalist says into his mobile phone.
I sure didn’t get it.
Róbert Marshall, who has recovered in the year since his misreporting and who is now preparing to direct Iceland’s news-only television station, drops our editor an email. Referring to the press conference, he writes: “This says everything about the Progressive Party. There are always some metres missing.”

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