From Iceland — The Unspeakable Brought to the Living Room

The Unspeakable Brought to the Living Room

Published April 7, 2006

The Unspeakable Brought to the Living Room

When the news network NFS was founded late last year, it had a lot to prove. Replacing the newsrooms of both Stöð 2 and Bylgjan, it was to become the central hub for the gathering and dissemination of news in the non-print media belonging to the 365 corporation. Arguably the biggest impact the channel has had so far has been through its weekly news magazine Kompás. While not everyone can see NFS programming 24/7, to see Kompás or the daily news you only need a TV and an antenna, and this has no doubt contributed to its success. A controversial program, Kompás’s content tends to be hotly debated over the nation’s water coolers the morning after it airs. In the wake of a particularly gripping report, in which the lack of an intensive care unit in a children’s hospital was exposed and criticised, the Grapevine caught up with Jóhannes Kr. Kristjánsson and Marteinn Þórsson to ask them about Kompás, the nation’s reactions and what it’s like to be an investigative journalist in a society with such a limited journalistic tradition.
/// Some of the things you delve into are of an extremely personal nature. Do people respond very differently to you when you contact them about issues that are highly charged with emotion?
Jóhannes: Yes, this story about the hospital, for instance, is obviously an extremely sensitive issue for everyone involved. The couple we talked to, though, did a fantastic job in coming forward and managing to tell such an emotional story in as much detail as they did – twice, if you count the initial interview. And thankfully, they really seemed to get through to people. This story touched a lot of people around the country.
/// You mention the reactions. Are you generally happy with the response you got following that program? The Baugur family certainly seemed to step up to the plate after this became public knowledge. (Following the airing of the program in question, Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson and family pledged to pay the 60 million krónur a year needed to run an intensive care unit in the children’s hospital – for at least the next five years.)
Jóhannes: Well, we’re certainly happy about how things turned out, aren’t we, Matti?
Marteinn: Yes, of course, but apart from the money it’s always good to see a much-needed debate like this one get going. I think the important thing is for these issues to get followed up by other media, so the public gets to see many angles to the same story. It doesn’t matter how much you strive to keep your reporting neutral and objective, you always have a particular approach to the story that is in part subjective.
/// Speaking of objectivity, when you asked some uncomfortable questions of the director of the children’s hospital, he stood up, said some less than complimentary things about your methods and basically tried to end the interview. Did you have any indication that he was upset with you beforehand, or did something go awry during the interview process itself?
Jóhannes: He was fully aware of the fact that we were there to cover an extremely sensitive issue. When he was pressed on some aspects of his hospital’s operations, and didn’t give what we felt were satisfactory answers, we simply had to keep on asking him. At some point he just gave up on the whole interview, but we persisted and got an answer out of him in the end. Interestingly, Minister for Health and Social Security Siv Friðleifsdóttir has since claimed that we violated some kind of rule or even law by not ceasing the interview and turning off our equipment as soon as we were asked to. Nobody here at NFS has any idea what she’s talking about. It has always been customary in our profession for the director and camera operator to decide when and when not to film.
Marteinn: People in positions of authority have a duty to provide the people with answers. If we, the taxpayers, are paying you wages to manage our affairs, then you have to be accountable to the nation and its people.
/// The Icelandic media are unfortunately famous for allowing politicians, and others, to walk all over them and get around the most basic questions with doublespeak, or simply by the blacklisting of individual journalists or organisations. Has your hard-hitting approach burned any bridges for you? Is the pool of people willing to talk to you shrinking?
Jóhannes: It seems to have done quite the opposite for us. Practically everyone is willing to speak to us these days. So far, we haven’t gotten a single ‘no’ from a politician. When we’re covering more sensitive issues, then naturally some of the more private individuals we approach do not want to expose themselves to public attention.
/// It hasn’t always been like this, has it? Is investigative journalism finally in vogue in Iceland?
Jóhannes: Kompás is really the only program of its kind currently being shown on Icelandic television. For 46 minutes a week, we get a chance to delve much deeper into the issues than most journalists. It’s hard to work as an investigative journalist in Iceland, that’s for sure, but we have a chance to do so and thus we’re just trying to make the best out of the situation.
Marteinn: I think these things have changed, as the society as a whole has changed very quickly over the past few years. People are certainly more receptive to our kind of journalism, open to more in-depth coverage. There has long been this tendency in Icelandic society to want to sweep uncomfortable issues under the carpet, even though everyone knew they were there. For instance, you might have a weird uncle that you think hangs out with kids a little bit too much, but no one wants to say anything.
/// Along with the positive reactions you have gotten for your work, there must surely have been quite a bit of negativity as well.
Marteinn: Yeah, the pervert episode comes to mind…
Jóhannes: Indeed, some people were simply unhappy with the fact that we decided to make a program on this topic, and particularly with the idea of using a fake girl to lure these guys in. Then again, we also got a number of complaints about the fact that we blurred out the faces and identifying features of all the individuals who showed up for a sexual encounter with this underage girl. So it went in both directions, really. On the whole, though, most people seemed to be very happy with the program – and so were we.
/// Would you have done anything differently after the “pervert program” in which you lured men to meet an extremely underage girl by posting an ad on the Internet, knowing how people reacted? (Despite the blurring of their faces and license plates, some of the men from the program were in fact identified by friends, family and co-workers. Following the example shown in the program, some teenagers also took it upon themselves to seek out and violently attack men who look for sex with young girls on the Internet.)
Marteinn: No, I think we would do it the same way.
Jóhannes: We were very happy with the way we produced that show. We don’t support people going out and trying this for themselves, of course.
Marteinn: Yeah, don’t try this at home.
/// Going back to the criticism, briefly, have you ever been accused of skewing the facts to fit your story?
Marteinn: We have been accused of dishonest editing. I remember reading a blog that claimed we had unfairly attacked the hospital director, the one who wanted to end the interview, and that it was only our editing that made him look bad. The truth of the matter is, and anyone can see this by looking at the tape, is that it was all one, long shot. What you saw on your TV screen is exactly what happened.
Jóhannes: We also got that after the pervert story aired, accusations that we had somehow twisted everything around in the editing room.
Marteinn: I mean, we had three cameras running each time, and the footage was all a bunch of continuous takes!
Jóhannes: Well, that’s the last defence you have left after the program airs and everything is said and done: “They just edited it to make him/me seem like a perv.” Like I said, sometimes Icelanders know very uncomfortable things about each other, friends and family even, but prefer not to rock the boat. They don’t want to know about it.
/// Since we have been talking about old habits in Icelandic journalism, it seems apt to end this with the traditional and highly patronising final question that closes practically every interview in Iceland: “Any final words or messages to our readers?”
Marteinn: We’re always looking for tips on interesting topics.
Jóhannes: Yes, you would be surprised what an impact one little idea can have once it starts to snowball. So please, keep them coming.

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