From Iceland — “Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely”

“Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely”

“Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely”

Published November 3, 2006

Jóhann Hauksson and Sigtryggur Ari Jóhannsson’s recent article in the premier issue of the magazine Ísafold sheds new light on the media law controversy two years ago. The article presents insider accounts of how former Prime Minister Davíð Oddsson attempted to manipulate parliament and various officials to pass his media bill, as well as evidence showing how three Icelandic media staples have been abused by their owners and/or a certain political party. They told the Grapevine all about it.
/// You are both veteran journalists. What compelled you to delve into such investigations now, in the year 2006?
Hauksson: The media law, or at least the government’s attempt to construct one back in the spring of 2004, quickly developed into the one of the biggest uproars Icelandic politics has ever witnessed. It resulted in the president refusing to sign a bill passed by parliament, the first time that has happened in the history of the republic, and the first time Davíð Oddsson had to back down in his 13-year reign of power. Many believe it was a pivotal moment in his career as a politician, which ended shortly thereafter.
I have also been interested in the media law bill for a long time. It was an attempt to make a law that would limit the ownership of certain media. Many thought it was an attempt by the PM, primarily, to put a certain media empire, Baugur, then a young company, in its place. Everyone knew that there was a war of sorts going on between these two parties, Baugur and the PM. And that’s interesting: what really happened?
/// Seeing that you’ve worked for Baugur, and one of you at RÚV, is it a coincidence that your article is only seeing the light of day now, in a new magazine?
Jóhannsson: That’s an interesting question. You might also ask if Ísafold’s owners, Baugur, have in some way tried to limit our writing – which they haven’t. I simply think that there is a need to delve into these matters because it was hard for Icelandic media to approach it in a fitting way when this all went down, there were too many judgement calls and a great political divide. It was hard to grasp what was actually going on. And let’s not forget that the media played a part in the matter as well.
Hauksson: The dust has settled a bit now. What we are doing is to go over the whole procedure, which in a way started the fall of 2003, when Baugur bought Channel 2 TV station and the [media conglomerate] Northern Lights. It set off a bomb and soon enough a government committee dedicated to investigating and putting straps on Icelandic media was formed. The heat escalated and in May of 2004, members of parliament were openly attacking each other, one MP ripped the bill in two during his parliament speech and the PM wrote an article on how the President of Iceland is unfit to make calls on the bill… all hell broke loose, basically. Now we are gathering the fragments, in an attempt to put the puzzle together.
/// The way you portray (former Prime Minister) Oddsson’s role in these events almost seems like a Greek tragedy, his hubris leading to a massive downfall. Then there are your accounts on how the media was abused…
Hauksson: What reporter wouldn’t want to tell that story?
But we also asked ourselves during the investigation if the media was being abused. Was there a reason to legislate it? We came up with at least three different cases, one regarding Morgunblaðið, another regarding RÚV and the third regarding Fréttablaðið. For my part, I don’t believe that a media law like the one that was proposed could have contained or prevented any of those cases because it doesn’t concern itself with that kind of abuse.
///Did Baugur ever try and influence your work at Fréttablaðið?
Hauksson: No, I had a lot of freedom. I was, however, familiar with the case of intervention we mention in our article, and it troubled me a great deal to know that the power to decide how and when certain stories would run wasn’t in the editor’s office. But it isn’t an isolated case. One example, I was a reporter with RÚV for a long time. I can remember one occasion where political power was used, strings were pulled and I was scolded for not heeding to the wishes of certain politicians. Lest we forget, RÚV is owned by the general public.
/// Care to elaborate?
Hauksson: It happened a long time ago. They were still building City Hall, and it was a very heated subject. This actually involves a major player in the media law commotion, one Davíð Oddsson, then mayor of Reykjavík. A story I wrote about the city’s budget, where one billion ISK were earmarked for the then-in-progress city hall building, made certain people very angry, resulting in me having to explain myself to my supervisors. The threads were all very obvious then, as they are now.
/// Are you saying that the man who risked everything to put a law preventing abuse of the media has at least twice abused the media, or interfered?
Hauksson: This is a pretty blatant example, from ’88 or ’89.
Of course this whole debacle is a source of irritation, but mainly it evokes a longing to look behind the scenes and try and figure out how it all works. Why can’t we just say things the way they really are? Why don’t we just tell the truth?
/// On the subject of RÚV, you state that not only did Minister of Education Þorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir offer Þorsteinn Pálsson (current editor of Fréttablaðið and former minister and MP for the Independent Party) the job of RÚV director before the position was advertised, but also that PM Oddsson went over her head and gave (RÚV’s current director) Páll Magnússon the position – again, before applications for the job were due. These are some heavy allegations…
Hauksson: We have very good inside sources on all of this. In our research, we honoured the three principles of journalism: verification, scepticism and perseverance, and this is what came out. The truth eventually gets out.
Jóhannsson: There are several stories here. What happened is that Gunnarsdóttir tried to surpass the lawful hiring process for that position, and Oddsson went over her head and also surpassed the lawful hiring process. This is a story I feel needs to be told, and told as soon as possible. Members of the government wilfully break constitutional law that’s meant to protect civilians against corruption, and there’s also the question of power play between two powerful members of a political party. The names of Oddsson and Gunnarsdóttir certainly spice things up, but I believe the main point of interest to be that in our system of government and in our political parties, there is a chance to abuse power to this extent. You could also say that the other 22 applicants for the position of RÚV director were fooled, misled.
/// So you’re pointing to a deadly fault in our system of democracy?
Hauksson: Rather a disease in our system, a curable one at that. I was discussing matters of corruption with a university professor the other day and he referred to them as a matter of public health.
/// Do you believe you’ll change anything by presenting evidence of corruption?
Jóhannsson: In the end, we will have to decide how we want these affairs handled. It is interesting to note that it almost seems like everybody just takes for granted that the media is manipulated, and that corruption rules how most public servants get hired. It even seems that people generally accept the fact, even though it goes against constitutional law. I am of the opinion that laws that regularly get shunned by the populace need to be adapted to human behaviour, we are now at the point where we, as a nation, must decide for ourselves how we want things run, we have to elect politicians that we trust to change the laws – or at least abide to the current ones. But the public won’t have that chance while it opts to disregard all these massive signs of corruption we are seeing. And if no one writes about it, or talks about it, we are instigating a status quo.
/// The Independence Party is mentioned repeatedly in your article. Why do you think that is? Is it a matter of securing a position? Is it a special characteristic of said party or would others in power have behaved in the same manner in your opinion?
Jóhannsson: It’s all a question of power and interest.
Hauksson: As Lord Acton said, and it’s interesting to note that Independence Party influential Hannes Hólmsteinn Gissurarson was at one time prone to quote him, “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” If we want to stand a chance of fixing things, we have to tell the truth, we have to be honest. There must be one single truth in these matters. Sadly, when the situation is at its worst, those in power often set terms of truth. This truth we are telling here, however, is not on their terms, we who are writing this are taking some risk, this is all to our best knowledge and understanding and if it rubs someone the wrong way, it’s not our problem. We aim to serve the public; that is the reporter’s job.
///As noted, you drop some bombs while quoting few named sources. Do you believe all of your sources to be solid; would this hold up in a court of law?
Hauksson: There’s no reason not to trust them. Most, if not all, of them are people who were involved in the proceedings at the very highest level. They had a direct involvement and are in some cases testifying against themselves. We also did a lot of research and groundwork; it even got to the point of being addictive as more pieces got added to the puzzle. We scrutinise all major media along with the government, it’s not a case of ‘let’s throw things at them and see what sticks’. Not at all. If we get ousted from their corner of society from now on, we’ll just have to accept that. We are presenting the truth and the only party whose interest we are concerned with is the general public of Iceland. That’s what’s important.

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