Over the last few years, a myth of sorts has developed around Iceland’s response to the economic crash. At some point—due to bad translations or wishful thinking—an idea arose that Iceland is some sort of utopian paradise where the bad bankers are in jail, Icelanders collectively wrote a new constitution over Twitter, and unicorns are the primary mode of transportation (maybe not the last part).
Èric Lluent is a Catalonian journalist now living in Iceland who analyses Spanish and Catalonian media coverage on Iceland since the crash. When he arrived in Iceland soon after the crash in 2008 he did not know there was an economic crisis, partly because it takes more than a failing banking system to keep Icelanders from Christmas shopping and partly because there had been very little coverage of it in Spain.
It was not until 2011 when political unrest erupted in Spain that interest turned to Iceland. Media coverage reported that Iceland had let the banks fail without cost to the tax payer. However, at a recent conference Èric explained that in reality the cost of bailing out the central bank for the average Icelander was about four times more than the Spanish paid for their bailouts.
“Iceland: the success of letting the banks fail and not using taxpayer’s money”
“Iceland jails its bankers”
“Iceland rejects paying for the banks’ mistakes through referendum”
Èric explained how through a series of articles by journalists who had never been to Iceland with headlines altered to maximise Facebook sharing a myth spread among increasingly desolate Spaniards that Iceland had a) jailed the bankers, b) let the banks fail, and c) the prime minister resigned.
Later when a new Icelandic Constitution was being discussed (but was never implemented) the myth was further solidified. In contrast to the Spanish Constitution that was largely drafted by fascists and the military, the media described Iceland’s new constitution as being created collectively by the people through social networks.
“Iceland creates new Constitution through Facebook”
“Iceland says ‘yes’ to constitution from popular proposal”
Èric indicated two reasons why the myth is continually reinforced. First, instead of proactively trying to change their system of governance, Spaniards dream of a perfect land uncritically. Second, when reporting a story journalists don’t need to provide much context when writing a story, which can be very misleading:
“Former Prime Minister Haarde found guilty of not informing government of financial crash” — While the headline is true the article is not clear that he did not go to jail.
“Let banks fail is Iceland’s mantra as 2% joblessness in sight” — Article is actually based off another article written by Ómar Valdimarsson of Bloomberg. Neither source mentioned that unemployment was actually 6.8%, and that the 2% came from a speech by Sigmundur Davíð.
Èric calls this phenomenon “a myth of headlines” created out of a need to believe in somebody. At a time when Spaniards felt defeated and hopeless they turned to Iceland the way prisoners on death row turn to God. Unfortunately, things will not improve in Spain if they are looking towards a fictional model.
The widespread belief that Iceland is an economic utopia was mocked in the annual New Year’s Eve comedy sketch. In one scene, when North American tourists asked, “Is it true, that after your economic crisis that all the citizens joined together to throw all the bad business men in jail forever, and that you created a new constitution based on new values, and that you all lived happily ever after?” and a room full of Geysir models responded in unison, “Yes, that’s true.”
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