Published May 27, 2005
We made a difficult editorial decision here. Our planned feature on the repercussions of an oil scandal, in which the local population was fleeced of billions of krónur, which cost the mayor of Reykjavík his position, has been postponed. Our investigation so far has shown that almost nobody who profited from the price collusion scandal has paid any penalties whatsoever.
We had a few problems we thought we’d share with you.
1) Few ministers or business people will talk with the Grapevine on record. In our investigations, the ruling Independence Party, the most conservative party in Iceland, openly sympathetic to neo-conservative politicians in America, is the party least likely to go on record. A conversation I had with the American Embassy reminds me of where the Independence Party may be learning their habits. When I asked if the US Embassy would be interested in discussing policies with a Grapevine reporter, I was told that this would not be a productive use of time. The ambassador, I was told, prefers to speak to groups of people. Which groups? I asked. The meetings of the young Independence Party and the Progressive Party. Somehow, this makes sense to the embassy. Speaking with a group of 100 people entirely sympathetic to your views is better than speaking with a reporter representing 80,000 readers. (We print 30,000, but Gallup reports a high pass-around rate. 80,000 is a low estimate.)
We worry that the policy of the administration, both domestic and abroad, of speaking only to the press that agrees with you, will catch on in Iceland.
2) The Icelandic media (with the noble exception of the comedy show Spaugstofan) has not thoroughly investigated the oil scandal or the insurance collusion scandal that will make up part of the piece. The media simply state that charges have been filed. I realize finding leads and sources is all part of the job, but we are simply trying to report to the English-speaking audience. It is surprising to us that we have to do first-time investigating.
3) We had others stories that were more timely.
But this all brings us to a main concern. The Grapevine is trying to present the news of the day and important tourist information to English speakers and those new residents who haven’t yet picked up a difficult language. And yet, when we want to report the relevant information, we keep on finding that none of the four newspapers, the dozen magazines, or the television and radio news have properly investigated the news. Time and again Icelanders are coming to us for… shudder… legitimate news.
Months ago, I was sure the Icelandic press hit its low point when Fréttablaðið ran a front page story on a “Price War” between Krónan and Bónus (the store that started the Baugur empire; Baugur being the company that owns Fréttablaðið.) That story included such outlandishly inane journalism as a “scientific study” in which shoppers were sent to each store to buy the same list of foods at the same time. Everything on the list was SOMEHOW cheaper at Bónus. All this was front-page news—a grocery store started a newspaper and the top story was that the grocery store was cheap. At the very least of my concerns, below the fact that the average Joe who chose to get important news from the paper was being denied information on, for example, the fact that Syria had decided to withdraw from Lebanon in response to a large, mostly peaceful protest, an event already in the history books as the Cedar Revolution, beyond the fact that this major event was barely being covered was the idea of how incredibly subjective the paper was on the price of milk and juice. Of course, I joked at the time, had there been a paper put out by Krónan, they could have found a way to compose a similar list that would have made Krónan cheaper.
The answer to Iceland’s media problems arrived this month, when Krónan put out a newspaper. Iceland now has four regular newspapers. With four regular newspapers, you can find out which of the major grocery stores has a sale. You can find out who drinks at Sirkus or Kaffibarinn. What you can’t find out are the following: who is making key decisions involving business and government policy? Why are they making those decisions? How can I affect those decisions?
The reasons for the atrocious journalism in this country are many fold. A clear reason is that the newspapers are owned by people who are best suited to keeping their readership ill-informed. You could cite the lack of a journalism school, the fact that writing is rarely taught in schools here, and the fact that a limited number of trained journalists have suddenly been spread far and wide across something like three times the number of writing positions that were available only five years ago. But in my discussions with local journalists, writers for every paper except Morgunblaðið hasveclaimed their editors insist on short, vague articles.
There are four key stories that we at the Grapevine would like to see somebody in the local media cover.
Here they are:
Could one newspaper explain which major public officials got their jobs immediately after a relative earned a position in parliament?
Could one newspaper investigate the Prime Minister’s inheritance? (For visitors, the Prime Minister inherited a great deal of fishing quota out of a system he helped create when he was Minister of Fisheries.)
Could one newspaper explain Iceland’s current role in Iraq and Afghanistan, and explain how the investigation into improprieties on the part of the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister ended so quickly?
If they can’t do any of the above, could one newspaper please interview or profile one New Icelander… 2.3 percent of the citizens of this country have immigrated legally; there are many more foreign residents waiting for citizenship, or simply living and working here on temporary permits. In reviewing the newspapers of the last month, guess how many mentions we found of them outside of stories about their arrests?
All of these topics were covered with more attention in Spaugstofan than they were in the news media.
We’re not asking for much, we just want somebody else to do the leg work, so we can relax and make crude jokes.