From Iceland — Controlling the Discourse by Changing the Subject

Controlling the Discourse by Changing the Subject

Published July 27, 2007

Controlling the Discourse by Changing the Subject

An entity called “The Journalistic Ethics Committee” operates under the aegis of the Icelandic Press Council (IPC), of which almost every Icelandic journalist is a member. The ethics committee counts five members, three representatives of the IPC and one each for Icelandic publishers and the University of Iceland Ethics Organisation. Journalistic subjects can file complaints to the committee if they feel that the IPC’s ethical guidelines (an English version of which is available on-line) have been faulted in any way by a member of the press. While the committee holds no legal powers and is restricted to simply reprimanding journalists that they rule to have overstepped “reasonable ethical boundaries”, it still is a veritable force in shaping Icelandic discourse. After all, its purpose is to decide what can be said, when, and how.
Enter Helgi Seljan, investigative reporter for the popular RÚV (Icelandic National Broadcasting Service) TV news show Kastljós (‘Spotlight’). Shortly before last spring’s parliamentary elections, Seljan presented a series of reports on how the Parliament’s General Committee had unprecedentedly granted full citizenship to then-Minister for the Environment Jónína Bjartmarz’s 21-year old daughter-in-law, on what must be deemed “shaky” grounds. A full on shit-storm ensued, one where Seljan’s journalistic integrity was challenged not only by the minister in question, but also by some of his colleagues.
Bjartmarz promptly filed a complaint to the journalistic ethics committee, who in turn decreed that Seljan had gone against the IPC’s ethical guidelines “in a serious manner”, while leaving the verity of his reporting relatively uncontested. Seljan and Kastljós, not happy with the verdict, immediately contested it, stating it was “completely unfounded”. They furthermore claim that the verdict calls for members of the press to treat elected officials mildly during election season. Seljan spoke to the Grapevine about the case in question and the resulting verdict.
Could you explain the offending report?
About a month after the fact, I received information that Parliament’s General Committee had granted citizenship to a certain applicant, among others, who had been in the country for fifteen months on a student visa. This is newsworthy in and of itself, as the law states that foreigners must reside here for seven years before they are eligible to apply for citizenship. Parliament can only grant citizenship under “special” circumstances, such as for humanitarian or family-related reasons.
We were then presented with evidence that confirmed the grounds by which that specific applicant was granted Icelandic citizenship, i.e. to escape “travel constrictions”, as she planned on studying abroad with her boyfriend, Jónína Bjartmarz’s son. We also confirmed that the General Committee’s verdict was completely unprecedented, that no applicant had ever received citizenship so quickly on these grounds – to make it easier for her to study abroad. To me, all this sounds extremely newsworthy. When you add to it the fact that the applicant in question had direct ties with a high ranking Progressive Party Minister – who in fact has her permanent legal address registered at that Minister’s residence, and is her son’s girlfriend – that is clearly a newsworthy subject. Adding insult to injury, one of her main referents in the application is that Minister’s very mother! From the beginning, we [at Kastljós] based our reporting on these grounds, and we stand by it.
The ensuing reports, not only at Kastljós but also in newspapers like DV, etc., all but confirmed that the whole case smacked of corruption. And nothing in any of the reports has been factually contested, save for some minor nitpicking…
That’s true. While no laws were broken, the manner in which citizenship was granted is suspect at best. Yet no one seems to care outside of the press. No MP has officially broached the subject, and no claims for reform are being made for a system that so obviously invites corruption, with a three-member committee making the final decision. This is especially interesting since MPs have up until now spoken of citizenship as a sort-of holy thing, that it should be handled with the utmost care. They’ve been narrowing the conditions for citizenship for a long time. And yet, no one says a word.
What happened in this case is what always happens here – not that the phenomenon is specific to Iceland – a giant wall of co-insurance is formed by the MPs, regardless of party lines. They will protect each other. Usually, they first try saying that whatever’s being discussed isn’t newsworthy, that it doesn’t deserve coverage; that it’s really no big deal. They avoid the subject, as they avoid going after each other and contesting each other. Thus, it’s left to the press to discuss this thing. Yet they have a duty to, just as we do.
The ones scrutinized in your report, Bjartmarz and the General Committee MPs, seemed upset that the matter was even being discussed.
Yeah, people were angry. It’s important to stay above water when the politicians start fending off reports, and it’s easy to lose track of what’s important – which is probably exactly what they want. They will place themselves firmly into trenches, avoiding mentioning the specifics of the case and the topics at hand, instead opting to move the discourse onto a personal level. Claiming they’re subject to political attacks and smear campaigns, that their personal lives are being scrutinized rather than their actions. That’s a common reaction. The way the thing blew up, it didn’t come as a surprise, as this is a big story that was bound to become controversial.
In hindsight, would you have handled the story any differently? How do you respond to claims that Bjartmarz’s person was unfairly attacked?
I would have done everything just about the same, although I perhaps would have braced myself for the commotion that followed our first report. We stand by it 100%. As for Bjartmarz, the whole thing never had anything to do with any one person; it didn’t even have to do with the particular applicant in question. The story concerned power, and how that power was potentially misused by elected officials in favour of one of their own. It concerns fair procedure, and how everyone should be equal in the eyes of the law.
The discourse surrounding this case soon took a strange shape, but anyone who’s observed the state of Icelandic political debate longer than one second could foresee that. It’s fairly common for participants to immediately focus on matters far removed from the real subject at hand. It wasn’t us who put the applicant, Bjartmarz’s daughter-in-law, in the spotlight. That was done by MPs who were trying to change the subject, to make it seem like we were attacking a young girl, rather than their own failure to follow due process.
You can see the same thing in the reactions to the ethics committee’s verdict, where a few individuals have taken that as complete validation for themselves and harshly attacked both the Kastljós’s editorial team and myself. They imply that we had some sort of sinister motive for broadcasting our report, and that it was unfounded, yet aggressively avoid saying anything about the specifics of that very report. They’d rather discuss my level of education. But I won’t complain, this frequently happens and every journalist that takes himself seriously has to be prepared for that.
Kastljós and yourself heavily refuted the ethics committee’s verdict…
I don’t have a lot to add to the statement we released on the day of the verdict. It can’t be appealed, and the committee isn’t required to explain their ruling any further. What’s left is that they neither researched nor disproved any of our sources, they didn’t seek out information to verify our report, or Bjartmarz’ complaints for that matter, so I don’t see why their judgement should hold any weight.
Boiled down to its essence, our coverage concerned a particular individual who had ties to a politician. That individual was granted citizenship on grounds that were completely unprecedented, and after only a short stay in the country. The ethics committee challenges this and claims there was nothing suspect about the bestowal, apparently without conducting any research of their own. Indeed, their claim isn’t backed by any sources. This de-validates their verdict to such an extent that it can’t be taken seriously. But that’s beside the point, what’s really disconcerting about the verdict is its apparent message to Icelandic journalists.
Which is?
The IPC and the members of the ethics committee need to give some serious thought to the message they are sending out with the verdict. It literally states that journalists should handle politicians and matters concerning them differently in the time leading up to an election. It’s like they are trying to interpret the journalistic ethics guidelines to say that we can’t cover stories such as this one during election season. It’s almost as if they’re saying that we should have waited until after the elections were over to uncover the facts of the matter, which is an absurd notion; that politicians should be “handled with an utmost care” – or not at all – while they’re in the process of running for office. This is an unbelievable message to members of the press, and I think the committee should come forward and explain exactly what they mean by that. Their verdict can’t be understood any differently.
I also feel that the IPC administration’s silent treatment of this matter highly embarrassing and not in line with the council’s actions in similar cases. By no means do I need for them to redeem me – I do not base my self respect on their opinions. I do, however, want to know if the IPC administration feels the ethics committee’s methods and message in this particular case were professional and, indeed, normal. Does the head of the IPC agree with his ethics committee that it’s best to hide certain news away ‘til after election season?
How did RÚV react to the ruling? Are you kept on a shorter leash now?
They’ve supported me throughout. Fortunately, most of the media in Iceland is run by people whose sole interest lies in telling news, rather than pleasing politicians or those in power. I’ve never encountered political pressure from my supervisors at RÚV. And no, I am not kept on a shorter leash. If they did that, I’d just find work somewhere else.

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