Egill Helgason started out as a cultural affairs journalist for the Progressive Party newspaper Tíminn in 1981. Since then, he’s worked in numerous media, both in print and on television, in what he describes in his own words as “a long but not complicated story of a man who never found peace anywhere.” In 1999, he was asked to host a political round-table discussion show called Silfur Egils and began writing daily online columns that now appear on Vísir.is. Although he contends that he is and always has been “a marginal figure” in Icelandic media, Helgason is one of the most respected media critics and political commentators in Iceland.
/// How did you get started in television?
– Some friends of mine connected to [television station] SkjárEinn asked me if I wanted to do a television show. I had never dreamt of having my own show. It was basically some-thing I never aimed for because I consider myself more of a writing journalist. I write on the website every day and that’s my main occupation. That’s what I like most.
I seem to have created a terrible wake of talk shows. They’re all over the place and I’m feeling a bit sickened by it myself. (laughs) But I go on with it. It’s well paid and I’m not fed up with it yet but I will be one day.
/// Every other time you write an article, it seems, you’re in some other country.
– I go abroad as often as I can, so I have to kind of narrow my perspective when I come back to Iceland. I think this is why I have a problem taking things too seriously in this country, and why I write a lot about foreign affairs on my website. But I’m not very consistent in my views. I don’t know if I pride myself in that or not, but I don’t have a very fixed point of view. I change my mind.
/// What do you think has been the biggest surprise of the past year in Iceland’s political landscape?
– I guess the biggest thing is that Davíð Oddsson has moved to [the chairmanship of] the Central Bank. He’s now a functionary of the state who’s not allowed to discuss politics. I’m not so sure how good he’ll be at it. Maybe he’ll be pulling some strings behind the scenes. I was happy for him because I think he should have left a while ago, but as a political analyst I was a bit shocked because now we have nothing to talk about. The people who are left lack colour. Most of them are quite decent people. Maybe not brilliant, but they lack his flair. Whatever you say about Davíð Oddsson, in many ways he’s a brilliant politician. He could have made it as a politician in any country.
/// In recent years, has there been a particular party or politician that you’ve been impressed by? Any who’ve disappointed you?
– I always get impressed by the Independence Party when they have their national assemblies, because they’re a really big movement in this country. There’s something about a party that’s had the support of 35 to 45% of the population for 50 years. That’s impressive in a way. They’re considered a conservative party but in a way they’re the equivalent of the social democratic parties of Scandinavia. Their politics aren’t very different. They’ve been in power for ages and we basically have the same welfare system as in Scandinavia. I would say they’re more like the Christian Democrats in Germany than they are like the Republicans in America. Even if they have a small Republican streak in their party, they’re Christian Democrats. But they’ve also been able to stay in power because the left here in Iceland is so split up. They hate each other. I think this a key feature of Icelandic politics.
But in the end you’d have to say that the party who let us down would be the three left-wing parties running Reykjavík right now. They’ve been in power for 12 years and while social care has improved, the town is still a mess from the point of view of planning, like [the highway] Hringbraut downtown, and making terrible mistakes like that, which could have easily been avoided. And now when push comes to shove, no one wants to take responsibility for Hringbraut. They’re all running away from the decision. Now that they’ve seen the horror of it – building a six-lane highway downtown – they’re all just running away from it.
/// Do you think, as some have contended, that the investigation against Baugur was politically motivated? [Helgason works for Stöð 2 and his online columns appear on Vísir.is, both mostly owned by Baugur Group, a company currently on trial for economic crimes in the Supreme Court.] – I find it very hard to believe that it was politically motivated. Maybe there were some politicians trying to influence it, but I think it would have happened anyway. Of course, this is a complicated matter. I work for Baugur, but I think it’s important that I try to criticise them.
I think that people are sucking up to big business in this country. The media that should be critical are sucking up to the nouveau riche in Iceland. I think it’s a very strange fact that these people have 60 or 70% of the grocery market. That is far too much. This is obviously not a healthy situation and I think that someone wasn’t doing their job when [Baugur] was able to acquire Hagkaup, and then 10-11, and then they went on and on.
/// How do you think that was able to happen? Was it cronyism, or holes in the legislation perhaps?
– The authorities were not able to stop it at the time, and now it’s too late to go back and no one seems to really want to break up the company. I think maybe Morgunblaðið wants to break up Baugur, but I think they’re the only ones who want that. This is not a healthy situation, and they don’t just own grocery stores – they own [home improvement store] Húsasmiðjan, they own [the mall] Smáralind, you could spend all your shopping money on Baugur. And their owning of so much of the media is not a healthy factor, either, and I have criticised my colleagues for being too pliant with their owners. And of course it affects the journalists.
Just as one example, they ran a piece in [Icelandic daily] Blaðið, where you saw who was on the Thee Viking yacht in Florida with [Baugur CEO] Jón Ásgeir – female escorts. Why isn’t [Baugur-owned tabloid] DV going after this story? They normally go after every small scandal in this country. Seven Icelandic businessmen with female escorts on a yacht in Florida. Why aren’t they running this story?
/// Maybe because DV is a Baugur company? I’m just throwing that out there.
– Maybe, yeah (laughing). But if you look at it from another point of view, the Icelandic media is very vibrant, there’s a lot going on. Maybe almost too much. I was brought up when every newspaper had its own political party, except for an independent paper I worked on for some time called Helgapósturinn. But now they seem to be more aligned with businesspeople rather than political parties.
/// Regarding the NATO base in Iceland: Do you think it’s going to last, and should it?
– The American problem right now is imperial overstretch. They are not able to cope in Iraq, and it’s really exposed the weaknesses of the American empire. They’ve had to keep bases open in Turkey and Uzbekistan and lots of other places around the world, and they have a base here, in one of the most peaceful regions of the world. Of course, we were marching against the base for ages. In retrospect, you have to say that this was one of the most important bases in the world during the Cold War. You just have to see what happened in World War II – many of the big sea battles in World War II happened near Iceland. But now this is a very marginal area and now they want to get out. Eventually they will, and I think that we should just accept the fact.
/// So you don’t think the base leaving is going to make Iceland vulnerable?
– I really don’t see terrorists coming to Iceland to occupy the prime minister’s office across the street. I don’t think any terrorist in the world would ever dream of coming to Iceland. On the other hand, I would not be opposed to a small Icelandic defence force, say several hundred people who could be called out in some emergency, be it some natural catastrophe or some external threat. So I’m not saying we should be completely unprepared, but you have to understand that there’s a very anti-militaristic feeling in this country. This is probably one of the least militaristic countries in the world, and I think it’s to the benefit of Icelanders that they have no respect for people in uniform.
/// I read in an online article that someone asked if you would ever run for office, and you declined on the grounds that you find meetings boring.
– I find meetings extremely boring. And there’s always one monumental bore at every meeting who just takes the whole meeting hostage. But what I would fear most about running for office wouldn’t be my opponents, because you can always find a way to get along with your opponents, but the jerks in your own party whose views you have to respect – that I couldn’t do.
/// That seems like kind of a tongue-in-cheek response.
– Well, it is, but I’m not very sociable, either. I go downtown, I buy my coffee, I talk to people, but I have never been a social person. I don’t belong to any clubs.
/// So that’s the actual thing standing in the way of running for office?
– No, no. (Pauses.) I have thought about it. Maybe I will someday. I haven’t decided on which party, though. Because I’m not very consistent. Politicians have to be very consistent in their opinions, even if they’re bad, but all you have to do is go to my website and see that I change my mind all the time. “Why should we vote for this guy? He doesn’t have any conviction.” But I’m intellectually curious. I read a lot, and I think I’m flexible because of that. I change my mind.
Silfur Egils broadcasts every Sunday at 12:00 on Stöð 2. His online columns can be read on www.visir.is/silfuregils.
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