From Iceland — All Highly Unlikely

All Highly Unlikely

Published November 17, 2014

Debates on Monday #10

Debates on Monday #10

The freedom fighter

Last things first: Styrmir Gunnarsson, former editor of Morgunblaðið, has published his memoirs from the Cold War. As reported, these disclose, among other things, that during most of the 1960s, Styrmir provided the Independence Party’s Chair and Minister of the Interior with information about the interal affairs of two socialist groups, retrieved at weekly meetings with an undercover informant. Styrmir’s first years as a journalist at Morgunblaðið overlapped with this activity.

Independence Party Campaign 1966

In interviews, the former editor keeps insisting that there was nothing wrong with all that, so far without facing anyone who might claim that yes, there was. Styrmir explains himself to the absent interlucators by saying that no matter how cold, the Cold War was a war, and a global one at that. That war necessitates many things, that under normal circumstances might be deemed impermissible. Albeit so far an internal debate, it unfolds in the public arena. Other participants may or may not be expected to enter it.

Interviewed by Eyjan, Styrmir reinstated that sometime around 1980, Icelandic society became disgusting, as people ceased worrying about ideals and based their activities on nothing but “private interests and money”. This side to the former editor’s political character seems not to have entered his internal debates on the ethics of spying, or notified Styrmir the spy about what sort of world it was he was fighting for.

That mid-interview sidenote about the Icelandic Nazi Party, to which Styrmir’s father apparently belonged, was not quite clear enough, or did not sound probable enough, to be repeated or debated at this point.

Welcome aboard

Sigmundur Davíð

Meanwhile, the aftermath of the Cold War keeps unfolding: after the government announced its handout of 80 billion ISK to those house-owners who were disappointed by the 2008 bank crash, some ask: why are you transferring money from public funds to people who at least have managed to buy a house? Yet others reply: it’s called keeping a deal, they are paying for their votes. At least they kept an election promise, that must count for something.

One contributor, Helgi Þór Harðarson, writing at Kjarninn, says that the operation finally secures a class division in the country. He points out that even if spokespeople of the government have, ideologically enough, called the manoeuvre a restitution of “the homes”, referring to households, the actual recipients of this support are house-owners only, leaving those renting to bite some dust.

Welcome to the lower class, is the title of Helgi’s article, concluding with these words: “I hope, at least, that renters in this country realize what sort of system is being developed for future generations, and get used to the thought of belonging to the “lower class”, because in a class-divided society you do not change that easily.”

Business-as-highly-unusual-as-usual Class

Back to Business Class: Last week saw the Minister of the Interior’s assistant, Gísli Freyr Valdórsson, swiftly become her former assistant, as he confessed to her, or so the story goes, to have doctored and leaked that infamous, sensitive Ministry memo, in order to influence public discourse about the eviction of one Tony Omos, seeking asylum in the country.

The changes that Gísli made to the document, before sending it to Morgunblaðið, incidentally, and its rival Fréttablaðið, consisted of adding unsubstantiated statements, based on hearsay, about private matters of the asylum applicant and people close to him.

By virtue of some sort of data archeology the prosecution retrieved the leaked document on Gísli’s computer, along with its editing history. This happened the weekend before last. The following Monday, after being made aware of this apparently undisputable piece of evidence, Gísli went on TV and explained to the public, so far unaware of the prosecution’s discovery, that the burden of lying and deceiving weighed too heavily on his conscience, and he felt obliged to step forward. A day or two later, he was found guilty of the conduct and sentenced to eight months in prison, on probation.

As Gísli admitted himself, changing and leaking the document was a pretty shitty thing to do. That, at least, leaves no room for debate.

The Ministry’s expansive improbability field

What remains debated is the Minister’s, Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir’s, involvement. Gísli and the Minister both insist that the latter had no awareness of the assistant’s actions until he confessed to her, reportedly to the Minister’s shock and dismay. Some find that somewhat improbable, for a modest heap of reasons.

First of all, this did not come out of the blue for anyone else. Gísli was a suspect and then a defendant in the case, for months. While some among Gísli’s supporters may have been disappointed by the revelation that he actually did what he was accused of, at that point, it seems unlikely that anyone could have been exactly astonished.

Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir on Kastljós

This whole case, however, has been an exercise in the endurance of improbabilities. At one point, the Minister asked the Police to hurry their interrogation of the assistant. This was revealed by the former Chief of Police, to Alþingi’s Ombudsman, after he resigned from his office.

The Minister claims that she did this for “humanitarian reasons”, since, without her interference, the assistant would have had to wait, anguished, for five days, before being questioned. Admittedly, as a categorical upper limit to the length of any step in a legal process, five days would be a great improvement to the Ministry’s standards of humane treatment of its constituents. It also seems improbable.

When the Police originally seized the assistant’s computer for investigation, the Minister asked if that wasn’t stretching it too far. Since the Minister is the highest official of the whole Police hierarchy, this conduct comes across as highly improbable. We know about it, only because the aforementioned former Chief of Police, having resigned shortly after those incidents, and then implied something was fishy around the Ministry, he was interrogated by Alþingi’s Ombudsman.

The Minister authoritatively declared that none of the above should be considered as interfering in the Police investigation. Which comes across as somewhat improbable.

The second law of improbability expansion

At one point, early on, the Minister told Alþingi that the Ministry had not made or had “any such memo” in its files, no document, actually, “bearing any resemblance” to the leaked one. Which must count as fully improbable, since, well, it did.

Later, the Minister explained that the Ministry did not consider the document as a memo, not even an informal memo. She now says that those statements were all in accordance with her best knowledge at the time, which seems theoretically possible, although not highly probable.

Around that time, the Minister also claimed that the Government’s Managerial Office, had investigated the Ministry’s premises and found no hint of any leak taking place at all. That office seems to exist and manage the Ministries’ office spaces and such. The findings of that investigation were not made available to anyone, nor were any details of its process or methods. Someone must have done something, but as for it being a thorough investigation, that sounded improbable from the beginning and seems to have become fully improbable since.

The Minister also attempted to get two among DV’s journalists fired, those two who covered the case from the beginning and just wouldn’t let go. That’s not exactly improbable, since it’s true, but it probably should be.

As the media won’t go away, according to latest news, the Ministry has ordained that its staff may not speak to journalists except authorized by the Ministry’s PR manager. Since he is now on vacation, journalists have not been able to reach staff since the former assistant’s verdict early last week. This policy would have sounded improbable not so long ago.

Interviewed by RÚV at the end of the week, Vice Public Prosecutor Helgi Magnús Gunnarsson said that the Minister’s repeated public statements about the whole case being “a dirty political game” were “highly unfortunate, to put it mildly”. Such comments, would have been thought highly improbable, coming from that office, until they did.

Blame the UNOP

Apart from other Ministers and their public statements, most people now seem to agree that the Minister of the Interior should resign. At the time of this writing she does not agree. In that respect a debate is ongoing, but it probably won’t last long. Probability measurements of that potentiality are, in other words, extremely low.

The forecast says that the Minister will be out of office before the end of the week. Probably, she will subtly insist on a somewhat generous spirit of self-sacrifice as the reason for her decision. It must be considered highly improbable that she will admit to any wrong-doing.

Many people will disagree with the Minster’s account for her decision, while others will nod respectfully. The debate, between the Minister and everyone else, as to whether she should stay or go will not, perhaps, be concluded, but it will be settled. The improbability field surrounding the Ministry will go back to normal.

It is highly probable that the other ministers within the Wild Boys government will keep a respectful distance through what follows. It is improbable that they will ever go public to say: “That leak? Amateurism. Those of us who went through law school are well aware that when you re-adjust the focus of the media, you must absolutely not get your own hands that dirty. Next Question?”

After being evicted, like scores before him, without notice, in the middle of the night, Tony Omos has remained out of Iceland for a year. The Ministry of the Interior has not apologized for its offense against him, or any other involved party.

Styrmir Gunnarsson’s vision of the 20th century struggle between the Right and the Left as a difference of opinion, seems to suggest that he might not be fully aware of the existence of the lower classes. That the interests of a large group of people might be very different, even opposed, to his. In the same vein, the Minister of the Interior’s reaction to the leak case has from the beginning appeared as if she didn’t fully believe in foreigners. As if Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir did not think that harm done to a powerless immigrant would ever have real consequences.

In bureaucratese, such errors of judgement might be called unsubstantiated negative ontological presumptions, or UNOP for short. UNOPs are risky business. The most improbable things can turn out to be the case. Be it by decree or as a matter of fact.

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