After ten years at the now solely online Progressive party newspaper Tíminn and 31 years at govenment radio, Kári Jónasson took on the position of editor of Fréttablaðið, Iceland’s most popular daily, just last year. The past year has been a turbulent one for Fréttablaðið, with a media bill introduced to parliament in 2004 that would have broken up the ownership corporate giant Baugur Group has over its media outlets – which includes Fréttablaðið – and a criminal investigation of Baugur making its way to the Supreme Court this year. Recently, local police even raided the Fréttablaðið news offices regarding a printed email leak related to the Baugur case. Paul Nikolov spoke with Jónasson about what might account for that popularity, and how long a way the Icelandic media has come, and where it can still improve.
After being in radio for such a long time, what inspired the change to go into the printed media?
I was just offered this job, and in this house there are many things going on. I felt I had done my job at the radio, having been head of the news department for the radio for 19 years and working at the radio altogether for 31 years. I thought that I wouldn’t go further up, so when I was offered this job I jumped on board the ship. There are a lot of possibilities here – radio, television, magazines and newspapers. I felt it was also time to get re-acquainted with the printed word. I’ve been around from Gutenberg to computers (chuckles).
What are some of the most memorable changes you’ve seen in the Icelandic media?
In 1962, the newspapers were connected with political parties, either directly or indirectly. In some cases, the parties themselves published the paper. The Progressive Party, for example, published Tíminn, where I worked for ten years. Morgunblaðið was owned by figures close to the Independence Party. If the chairman of the Independence Party said something, it was printed on the front page.
Do you think that’s changed?
That has changed a lot. It used to be that on election, the front page of Morgunblaðið would have a message from the chairman of the Independence Party. Then in 1991, when Davíð Oddsson was chairman of the party, on that election day, his statement didn’t appear on the front page. His message was inside the paper, under the heading, “Letter to the Newspaper.” That was something we all noticed.
When I started at the radio in 1973, we had to be very careful about what we said. I was parliamentary correspondent for a couple of years, and we always had to write in the style of, “So-and-so put forth a measure about this-and-that and so on,” and if we didn’t, we’d get a call from someone saying, “Why didn’t you mention me?” But I think the turning point was in the spring of 1974, when the leftist government was going away, we were allowed to broadcast from parliament, which we asked for. Then we started to get more and more critical; not just saying, “This and that were put forward today.” It took time to make this change, and in some cases it was difficult.
Did journalists just wake up one day and say, “Instead of just reciting statistics, let’s start asking critical questions?” What inspired the change?
We just realised that we had to do something. There were journalists at Tíminn who wanted to write news, and not just the party line. It wasn’t me alone at the radio. We all talked about it, and we all decided that we had to break out from our political prison. It took time, but we succeeded in doing it. For a while I was a police correspondent, and it was around that time that we started doing our own research, instead of just taking whatever the police said. Sometimes now when I’m telling young reporters about it, they say, “Wow, only 30 years ago it was like that?”
Even though the media doesn’t seem to be under the direct control of political parties anymore, do you think the media is as diverse as it was in the past?
We have many, many good journalists in Iceland now, who aren’t just taking their lines from the political parties or their owners. I think that the journalists in Iceland work very hard, they produce a lot, and they work by the unwritten journalistic rules – taking both sides or all sides of a story, but not taking any line from their owners. I think that the voices of the different newspapers, radio and television stations in Iceland are different enough. My view is that we must have at least three strong newspapers and more than one radio and television station.
How do you account for Fréttablaðið being as popular as it is now after being around for a little over four years?
Well, we’re a free newspaper, and we’re distributed free through most of the country. But we’re a very different free paper than other metro papers you’ll see in Europe or the US. Like the Danish paper Metro, most of their stories are taken from the Danish news bureau Ritzaus. There’s not very much individual reporting; it’s more or less just copy-paste. But our paper, there are something like 40 journalists working here, where we have a mixture of people who’ve been in the media for years and young people who’ve just come out of university. We have the business paper Markaðurinn, the magazine Birta, and most of our material is written here in the editorial office.
What would you say is Fréttablaðið’s guiding philosophy?
I’d say the guiding philosophy is that in the morning, people can see what’s going on in Iceland and the world, not in long articles but in short, easy to read articles. Then we have background material, and more in-depth features. This should be a media where you can find everything.
Why do you think the 2004 media bill was a bad idea?
I think it was very closed, very narrow. I think what we need in Iceland is a sensible law about the whole media, about ownership and editorialship and all sorts of things, not just about who owns the media. Now, the latest talk about a new media bill has proposed putting any company’s maximum ownership of a media outlet at 25%. This has never annoyed me, how much this or that company owns. It’s never been an issue in Iceland over who actually owned Morgunblaðið. It just became an issue when Fréttablaðið came, and Davíð Oddsson was very angry about the owners of Fréttablaðið. We know that [Baugur Group CEO] Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson owns about 28%, but ownership changes from day to day and week to week because we’re on the market now. We don’t follow who owns this paper and they don’t interfere.
So you’ve never had Jón Ásgeir come down here and say, “I want you guys to do a story on this”?
No, no (laughing). I have met Jón Ásgeir once in my life. But it just so happens that [Jóhannesson’s father] Jóhannes Jónsson and I grew up on the same street, and we’ve known each other for many years.
If you were to co-author a new media bill, what would you focus on?
I haven’t really thought about that, but I think that laws about the media should be similar to laws about other companies. We have an obligation to get our information right, so I think there’s more responsibility on us to be truthful and transparent than there is on some business company for example.
What changes would you like to see in the Icelandic media itself?
I think we need to do more critical research. Icelandic papers don’t have a lot of money, but I would like to have the budget to have people go more in depth in individual stories, for many days and weeks, to do more investigative pieces. I think the Icelandic media needs that a little bit.
The Grapevine asked questions relating to the police raid on Fréttablaðið, but due to current legal actions, Kári Jónasson was not allowed to comment.
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