From Iceland — Gov't Press Secretary Urges Grapevine To "Reconsider” PM Holiday Story

Gov’t Press Secretary Urges Grapevine To “Reconsider” PM Holiday Story

Published December 12, 2014

Also objects to journalist’s personal tweets – Story remains uncontested

Also objects to journalist’s personal tweets – Story remains uncontested

This morning, we ran a story headlined “PM Ditches Parliament To Go On Holiday, Doesn’t Tell Anyone”. The story was based on DV’s report from Thursday, that Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson had gone on holiday, without notifying Alþingi, while Alþingi prepares to vote on next year’s State Treasury Budget.

Our item on the surprising holiday also included the following line: “According to DV, Sigmundur Davíð has more advisors and assistants than previous prime ministers, seven in all.”

All of the above is true and remained uncontested in a phone conversation and two emails from the government’s press secretary, a post residing within the Prime Ministry. The press secretary nonetheless encouraged the Grapevine to “reconsider” the story, and to speak with him when reporting on government affairs, from now on.

The phone call

The press secretary, Sigurður Már Jónsson, called Grapevine’s offices to speak with journalist Nanna Árnadóttir about her story. As she was not to be reached at the offices, he spoke instead with another journalist, Gabríel Benjamin, complaining that the story was biased. Gabríel, who did not write the item in question, proceeded to go through the article paragraph by paragraph, checking it for bias. At this point, the press secretary accused one of DV’s journalists of being anti-government and an unreliable source.

The assistant went on to speak about Nanna Árnadóttir’s own Twitter account, where she has, among other things, tweeted links to news items. The press secretary claimed that promoting one’s own stories goes against an unspecified journalists’ code of ethics. He further remarked that the journalist’s personal tweets were “hostile”.

The press release

The press secretary followed this phone conversation up with an email, wherein he restated his opinion that DV is “not a trustworthy source on this case.” He further explained that the Minister’s trip was “organised with a long notice, and those whom it concerns were notified.”

However, he acknowledged, the trip “seems not to have been registered at Alþingi’s absence register.”

None of the above seems to have misreported by the Grapevine. Nor what follows. In the email to Gabríel, the press secretary went on, commenting on Fréttablaðið’s original front page coverage of the number of the Prime Minister’s assistants.

The press secretary provided a link to a news release intended to correct Fréttablaðið’s story: The Minister does not have seven assistants, explains the statement. He has two assistants. For unknown reasons, the Foreign Minister’s assistant also works at the Prime Ministry, as well as the government’s two assistants, one of which is the press secretary, Sigurður Már. The Minister also has two advisors on “temporary and limited projects”. In total these are seven people, only two of which, however, have the job title “Prime Minister’s Assistant”.

Further clarification

“For further clarification,” the press secretary then went on about Fréttablaðið’s story, “it may be noted that: the case is not put in the context of legal authorisations” and “the law has been adhered to, even if there are no signs of that in the paper’s story”.

After enumerating alleged falsehoods in Fréttablaðið’s report, the press secretary repeats that “the number of assistants is now perfectly in accordance with legal authorisations and the methods they authorise”.

Sigurður Már then quotes Árni Magnússon, born 1663, who apparently wrote: “In this world some assist erroribus going around while others try to exterminate that same erroribus. Thereby both have something to do.” He concludes the letter on the following note: “I want to encourage responsible journalists who want to inform English-speaking readers about what happens within the government to contact me … I hope this note will lead to a reconsideration of the news story in question.”

Materially uncontested

When the press secretary’s comments were forwarded to journalist Nanna Árnadóttir, she added the only note with factual substance to her piece, that the Prime Minister did notify some people about his trip, although he did not notify Alþingi.

On this, the press secretary has commented, in a second email, that he expected more changes to be made to the already published piece, citing, specifically, the headline’s phrasing. He said that it is false to say the PM didn’t “tell anyone”, as some people knew about his travels. Neither Alþingi nor the public did, however, as made clear in the report’s text. The press secretary further complained about the choice of verb in the headline, which says the PM “ditched” Alþingi. He did not say which verb he would consider most proper.

The journalist summarised the job positions of the Mininstry’s seven as “assistants and advisors”, which seems correct.

Factually, the original news story thus remains uncontested.

Other comments fact-checked

The secretary’s comment on media not noting specifically that the government abides to law in a particular case, would seem to imply that readers should expect the government to violate laws unless otherwise explicitly stated. Notwithstanding this year’s scandals, such a presumption seems to remain unfounded.

Contrary to the secretary’s opinion, DV has proven to be among our most trusted sources for information. Memorably, DV broke and insisted on the fully validated news of the Interior Ministry’s leak, which eventually led to the Minister’s resignation. The medium has also been known for correcting any missteps swiftly and clearly.

The Grapevine is not aware of any ethical code discouraging journalists from promoting their own stories, as claimed by the press secretary. Nor will it curb journalists’ freedom of expression in their personal capacity, such as through their own Twitter accounts, where any opinions stated are obviously their own.

In November, the organization Reporters Without Borders issued a statement expressing its concerns with the perceived decline of freedom of information in Iceland during the last two years.

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