From Iceland — Our Favourite Scandals Of The Year

Our Favourite Scandals Of The Year

Published December 30, 2020

Valur Grettisson Andie Sophia Fontaine
Photo by
Johann/ Commons

Iceland, like any modern nation, always has its share of scandals. Most of ours involve government officials, as they typically have the most access to the kinds of resources and connections you can take advantage of. Here, then, are the scandals of 2020 that stood out most of all.

Crony Capitalism: Taxpayers misused by big companies

The government announced one of the most effective measures in the economic disaster fallout of COVID, the partial benefit, in April, and shortly after it took effect. In short, its purpose was to help companies to pay their staff workers’ salaries, by putting them temporarily on partial unemployment benefits at the cost of taxpayers. This was incredibly effective and will possibly be deemed as the one of the solutions that helped companies the most in the pandemic. But, of course, not all companies could lose a dime from their profit, and that meant that huge companies that didn’t really seem to struggle that much, or even being affected by the pandemic at all, applied for the benefits.

This meant that one of the biggest oil companies in Iceland, like Skeljungur, paid its shareholders 600 million ISK in April, but in May taxpayers paid the company’s employers 7 millions in salaries. Another clear example was Össur, which manufactures support equipment for people who have lost a limb, and paid it’s shareholders 1.2 billion ISK just a moment before they used the partial benefits to pay 165 employers of the company 50% of their salaries with taxpayers money.

After these companies, and many more, were busted, mostly by hard working journalists in Iceland, at least Skeljungur promised to repay what they got from the struggling taxpayers. Our Minister of Welfare in Iceland, Ásmundur Einar Daðason, criticised this and simply said: In the best case scenario, it’s unethical to misuse the government option for struggling companies. VG

The odd big government help for IcelandAir that no other company got

But this doesn’t mean that the government wasn’t in a giving mood when it comes to huge companies. The government often has a bleeding heart when it comes to bailouts in hard times for struggling companies, and Iceland’s biggest airline was said to be heading fast for a bankruptcy for obvious reasons in the summer. Now, this is possibly a controversial scandal to pick because this is far from being simple, especially for a small island that is heavily dependent on air transportation. The company needed 15 billion ISK in a form of loan line, which they said they possibly wouldn’t have to use in the end. The government pretty much said OK. But critics raised some good points. First, why give the whole company the loan line, instead of only the part of the company that actually deals with the flying part? Other parts of the company are, for example, a cargo transport company, hotels and a travel agency. It’s safe to say that there is a lot of competition in Iceland when it comes to these industries, so the other companies asked simply: Why them, and not us? The bill was passed in September, although the minority at Parliament was not happy with this. The Pirate Party said this was pretty typical crony capitalism in Iceland where the profit is privatised but the losses are nationalised. The Social Democrats said that we missed an golden opportunity to ensure the rights of the workers for the company as well as enforcing green values. VG


Perhaps not the biggest scandal of the year, but it did confuse a lot of people and possibly had the effect that the Icelandic nation lost some trust in the government when it came to rules about the pandemic. Some might have noticed that Icelanders didn’t wear masks for the longest time in the pandemic. This was not because Icelanders didn’t want to or didn’t know about the obvious benefits when wearing one, but because the chief epidemiologist, Þórólfur Guðnason, stated for months that masks were not particularly useful, and what’s worse, that they gave the users a false sense of security creating even more danger than helping. In short, Þórólfur was proven wrong, and in the end of the summer he admitted, without trying to dodge out of anything, that he was truly wrong. Now, Þórólfur is a stand-up guy, and just admitting that he was wrong without adding a “but” to it repaired a lot of the damage. But he couldn’t really be responsible for the idiotic politicial weaponising of wearing a mask, like happened in the US and became a problem in Iceland as well. Videos of COVID-iots in Icelandic supermarkets screaming at guests that this was all a lie emerged, creating the correct atmosphere for YouTube educated sceptics in Iceland. But so it goes. VG

Get in tha choppa!

Why even be a government minister if you can’t enjoy a few perks? Last August, Minister of Justice Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir reportedly made use of one of the Coast Guard’s helicopters—you know, the choppers that are always on call to perform emergency rescues—to fly to a horseback riding outing with her dad. From there, she was flown to a meeting with Health Minister Svandís Svavarsdóttir, but then left halfway through to be flown back again. And I mean, we get it: it’s hard work being a government minister, and when you have so many publicly owned resources at your beck and call, it’s really hard to resist the temptation to make use of them. Sure, government ministers in Scandinavia will resign for using the wrong credit card to buy takeout, but things are different in Iceland. Our ministers are made of sterner stuff. If you’re a minister here, and get caught red-handed misusing public services, all you have to do is issue a lukewarm apology, as Áslaug did, and all is forgiven. Which is exactly what happened. ASF

Bjarni Ben is a party dude

Remember back in the 80s when they used to call then-US President Ronald Reagan “Teflon Ron”? He earned this nickname because no matter what he said or his administration did, seemingly nothing could stick to him. You could arguably say the same about our Minister of Finance and the chair of the Independence Party, Bjarni Benediktsson. The 2016 Panama Papers revelations included shedding light on his shady business dealings, yet somehow it was then-Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson who resigned. In 2017, Bjarni sat on information about a complicated “restored honour” scandal that ended up exploding the government, but somehow it was only then-Minister of Justice Sigríður Á Andersen who had to resign over it. This year, Bjarni attended a party at the Ásmundursalur museum that was broken up by police for breaking coronavirus restriction guidelines. He admitted doing this, on Facebook no less, and apologised for it, even though he would later contend he did nothing wrong and sees no cause to resign. In the end, it was actually the police—who reported that “a government minister” had been at the party—who were shamed for daring to reveal this information to the public. One wonders what, exactly, Bjarni would have to do to face any consequences. Actually, scratch that—we don’t even want to know. ASF

Yes, we have covid denialists, too

We know Iceland has a reputation for being progressive-minded, science-based people, and that is for the most part true. For the most part, we say, because the pandemic has sure brought the tin foil hat brigade out into the open. One of the better examples is Elísabet Guðmundsdóttir, who made the news by refusing to undergo border screening and then crying about it on Facebook. She is one of a handful of people who have some kind of problem with common sense, proven effective measures to control and reduce the spread of the virus. And she isn’t alone, either. Helgi Sig­urðs­son—the guy who’s responsible for the bizarre far-right political “comics” that Morgunblaðið prints—is, to the surprise of no one, also critical of pandemic measures, and is deeply suspicious of the vaccine. He’s been vocal about believing that “ozone therapy” is a better defense against the virus than the decades-old method of using viral mRNA. Why? Who cares? None of these people have any compelling, fact-based arguments to make, and going into their worldview in detail only gives the impression that their points of view are just as worthy of consideration as, you know, science. Not on our watch! ASF

Note: Due to the effect the Coronavirus is having on tourism in Iceland, it’s become increasingly difficult for the Grapevine to survive. If you enjoy our content and want to help the Grapevine’s journalists do things like eat and pay rent, please consider joining our High Five Club.

You can also check out our shop, loaded with books, apparel and other cool merch, that you can buy and have delivered right to your door.

Support The Reykjavík Grapevine!
Buy subscriptions, t-shirts and more from our shop right here!

Show Me More!