The Romans Have Not Taken Over The Media! Move Along, Please!
You wouldn’t call it a media blackout, I guess. Because that would be hard to prove, and if you can’t prove it, someone might sue you. Newspapers have been changing hands, however, and a lot of private interest seems to be involved.
All of Gaul is occupied by the Romans
First, the backstory: a short overview of Icelandophone news media currently in print. For the sake of relative brevity, I will keep the weeklies out of this picture.
Limiting our scope to media published more-frequently-than-weekly, or would-be-dailies, leaves us with three newspapers. Daily paper Morgunblaðið is owned by fishing industry barons, and edited by Davíð Oddsson, former Prime Minister and Chairman of the Party—that’s the Independence Party, in case you’re new around here. For decades, Morgunblaðið used to be the Party’s explicit mouthpiece, before specializing as the mouthpiece of the Party’s bitterest faction.
The daily Fréttablaðið, on the other hand, was founded at the optimistic dawn of the century, by Davíð’s arch rivals in the Baugur Group, as the medium of choice for new money, competing with Morgunblaðið’s relations with old money. For a while, due to diplomatic necessity, it seems, Fréttablaðið’s chief editor was also a former chairman of the Party—the same party, yes—the more gently mannered, but no less conservative, Þorsteinn Pálsson. He was succeeded by one Ólafur Stephensen, former assistant editor of Morgunblaðið. Right-wing, yes, but of the soft-spoken liberal variety, as opposed to Morgunblaðið’s current bulldozer approach.
Now, at the end of August, Ólafur Stephensen quit, or was forced to quit, as the paper’s owners seem to have wanted an even tamer editor. The paper currently seems to have a chief, plain and simple, rather than a chief editor. The chief, i.e. publisher Kristín Þorsteinsdóttir, is an experienced corporate spokesperson, who became known shortly after the 2008 bank crash for encouraging the public to let go of the anger, stop seeking justice through the courts, et cetera. All in all, an impressive candidate to create lousier media still.
All? Not quite!
Then there is the not-quite daily tabloid DV. Much like the publication you are now reading, The Reykjavík Grapevine, which is supposedly sort of a tourist rag, DV has outgrown what could be expected of it as a mere tabloid. Yes, there is some of the latest on Justin Bieber and all that, but at least since 2009, the paper has been at the forefront of critical, investigative and, at times, aggressive journalism. A notable example: While Morgunblaðið and Fréttablaðið received, and proceeded to uncritically publish, notes from the Ministry of Interior ‘s leaked memo, slandering asylum seeker Tony Omos, DV’s journalists started their investigation as to who leaked it, how and why. Their thorough pursuit of the facts of the matter has since led to a police investigation, a formal investigation into the Minister’s meddling in the police work, the Minister’s quasi-resignation, an upcoming congressional hearing and more. As a tabloid, the paper tends to focus somewhat more on persons, their stories, their hubris and their pathos, than other types of critical media might.
While theirs may not be the ideal approach to investigative journalism, it has, for a while, been more or less the only approach in town—actual journalism’s last resort. Meanwhile other papers copy and paste news releases, and slander asylum seekers. This is neither anecdotal nor a vague feeling: according to María Elísabet Pallé’s 2012 thesis on Icelandic media after the 2008 bank collapse, news analysis was more than twice as common in DV as in the second contending newspaper. Independent journalistic research was three times more common in DV than in the next best paper. Furthermore, DV was the only paper that printed no copy-pasted news releases, whereas in Morgunblaðið and Fréttablaðið, 18-20% of news consisted of such material. DV has, in other words, been vitally important in the eyes of those who prefer their media independent, while, at best, irritating to those who prefer it tame.
Life is not easy for the Roman legionaries …
Earlier this year, one Björn Leifsson, owner of the chain of gyms known as “World Class,” filed a libel suit against DV. Apparently the paper insisted there was something fishy about his business, whereas he claims there is not. Now, at the end of August, however, Björn made it known that he had bought a minor share in the paper, with the declared intention to get rid of its editor, Reynir Traustason. Last weekend, Björn then sold the shares to owners who proceed to form a new board. Technically, they have not fired Reynir, but suspended him of his duties, locked him out of the building, and hired a new chief editor.
Members of the legal team involved in the takeover include lawyer Sigurður G. Guðjónsson, who led the defence of former Landsbanki manager Sigurjón Þ. Árnason. He has also published articles in defence of Gísli Freyr Valdórsson, the Minister of Interior’s former assistant, who now faces criminal charges for leaking the infamous memo, mentioned above. All this is not, Sigurður says, relevant to anything. More on that later. The new board hired old-timer Hallgrímur Thorsteinsson as the paper’s editor. With decades of experience, he enjoys general professional respect, and at least some of DV’s journalists seem willing to work under his charge. The board, however, and Sigurður Guðjónsson’s involvement, is a different story: the tactics employed in the takeover don’t seem to have created much trust between owners and staff.
One of the many articles that Sigurður Guðjónsson wrote during the changing of the guard was titled “The Man With The Hat,” a reference to suspended editor Reynir, who is a somewhat iconic hat-bearer. On Monday, having finalized the takeover on behalf of his clients, Sigurður then entered DV’s office, sporting a hat like Reynir’s. These tactics, which some likened to the heathen practices of wearing a victim’s flayed skin to boast, did not exactly boost morale. More serious issues include insinuations that Sigurður also made public on Monday financial misconduct by the old team. These allegations remain unsubstantiated, and were grammatically formulated just about right to avoid any libel suits if they prove unfounded. The new board has announced that the paper’s finances, as well as its journalistic methods, shall be investigated.
Holding out, strong as ever, against the invader
The journalists resist, in what seems to be a sceptical atmosphere, at best. Five journalists have resigned. Those who still remain demand that the board apologise to Reynir and cancel the announced investigation into their professional conduct, seeing such a process, as an uncalled-for declaration of mistrust. On Monday, the day of the hat and the first working day after the weekend’s events, the journalists staged a sit-in at their own office, refusing to write any material until their demands were met. Accordingly, last Tuesday’s paper did not come out. The investigation of the paper’s journalistic practices may have been cancelled at this point. Staff members seem unsure about how to proceed.
These are just the latest events in a long history of local media power struggles. In his articles published during this change of ownership, Sigurður G. Guðjónsson, the hat-man, has denied that he plays any part in what he says is not a hostile takeover and is absolutely not intended to silence an editor who was totally corrupt and inept anyway. I am not fully up-to-date on current trends in Iceland’s Kremlinology. Since this non-hostile non-takeover has allegedly nothing to do with anything, I lack clear insight into whether it had less to do, then, with the interests of the Ministry of Interior’s former staff or grudges harboured in World Class gyms and tanning stations.
What clearly seems to be the case, though, is that a paper that remained relatively independent among Iceland’s printed news media is being steered into the hands of people we can safely call players. People, that is, who are directly involved in the power struggles that shape the country and which the media is supposed to shed some light on. Accordingly, many of those involved have expressed an interest in peaceful media. The case of the Ministry’s leaked memo is one touchstone for what this means. Taken up by the courts, the case has entered a new phase, but is certainly not, thereby, over. Whether DV’s journalists, or any journalists for that matter, remain free to cover that phase remains to be seen. By journalists, we mean capable people receiving paychecks for their work, and by cover, mean doing more than repeating words uttered or issued by the parties involved. Preferrably, a lot more.