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In praise of Gräv10

I have been so preoccupied with the volcanic eruption and other things back home that I haven’t written a thing about the Gräv10 conference that is the reason for my being here in Stockholm.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Gräv is the name of the annual conference of the Association of Investigative Journalists here in Sweden. [Gräv means “to dig”.] Around 700 people attended the conference which was held at the HQ of Swedish radio [Radiohuset].

It started on Friday and wound up on Sunday, and during those three days there was a packed programme. Unfortunately I did not get to see as many events as I would have liked because I was limited to the ones that were in English so my selection was, well, limited. If I’m not mistaken there were only four in English, and one of those [with the guy from Politifact] was scheduled at the same time as mine.

I shared a podium with a woman from Latvia named Sanita Jemberga. I knew very little about the Latvian situation before I arrived [we don’t get much news from there in Iceland] but found myself nodding furiously [if not physically, then at least inwardly] at Sanita’s descriptions. The similarities between our two countries at the present time are so striking! The same corrupt oligarchs [only theirs are Russian and are close to oil money], the same power struggles to gain control of the media. Sanita worked for one of the most respected papers in Latvia [if not the ONLY respected paper] — until it was sold, that is, and the new “owner” – a former Managing Director – refused to say where the money came from. This went on for weeks until finally it was announced that there were “new owners” — in the form of the Rowland family, who also happen to be the ones that bought Kaupthing Luxembourg, now renamed Banque Havilland. [Curiously enough, despite allegedly running a new bank they kept on much of the high-level staff, many of whom were Icelandic and some of whom are currently under investigation.] Long story short, Sanita and about 20 others staged a walkout and are currently trying to launch an online paper.

I also instantly clicked with Erin Arvedlund, who was the first person to write an article about Bernie Madoff, back in 2001, questioning the astonishing returns on his hedge fund. I managed to see Erin’s lecture, in which she told her story: how she had received an anonymous tip that all was not kosher with Mr Madoff’s business practices, how she investigated, how she wrote the story that she thought would win the Pulitzer, and her absolute bafflement when NOTHING happened. Until 2009, when she was finally vindicated. A couple of weeks later, Penguin called and asked her to write a book, called Too Good to be True; The Rise and Fall of Bernie Madoff. Her lecture was wonderful — not just because she’s a great storyteller, but also because she is the first person to actually explain to me how Madoff went about doing what he did, and how he got away with it for 30 years. A story that beggars belief.

The only other lecture I managed to catch was one by Danish blogger Dorte Toft, who exposed the company IT Factory – chosen Denmark’s best IT company two years running and which allegedly had a turnover of millions – as a scam. The story made headlines around the world in November or December 2008 when the CEO – Stein Bagger – disappeared while on holiday in Dubai with his family. Turns out he had done the skedaddle – run off to the States – but was apprehended and is now serving seven years in jail. Before this, however, he had tried everything he could to brush off Dorte, who stuck to his coat sleeve like an annoying piece of lint, trying to get something on him that would reveal that the guy was a fraud. — The story had me listening open-mouthed [and not for the first time] at how stupid people can be who think they are untouchable and are consumed by greed. — I also learned a lot from the lecture about blogging itself and its inherent potential [Dorte actively engaged her readers in the investigation, with great success!].

One lecture I wish I could have seen but missed [because it was in Swedish] was that of Minna Knus-Galan, who works for Finnish television and unearthed a huge development-money corruption scandal in Costa Rica, involving a Finnish company that sold hospital equipment. Minna worked on that story for four years and collaborated with a Costa Rican colleague. She sat next to me at two dinners and was such great company!

Anyway, here is a rather haphazard picture, taken at the lavish gala dinner held on the Saturday night, when the prizes for best investigative journalism of the year were handed out. It was just like being at the Oscars. [On second thought, make that the Golden Globes.]


From left: Anders Billing from Gräv, Sanita, Minna and Erin.

Many thanks to all at Gräv for inviting me and taking such an interest in the situation in Iceland. And last but not least for being such excellent hosts!

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  • Michael Lewis March 22, 2010, 11:45 pm

    ” explain to me how Madoff went about doing what he did, and how he got away with it for 30 years. A story that beggars belief.”

    The thing about Madoff is this: I think many people knew the smooth results were not achieved legally. They just thought he was ‘front-running’ his clients money. That is, think of Madoff as two businesses one for managing client funds, one as a market-maker. Suppose you get a large order that could swing the market for stock X. By law market makers can’t act on that information for their own profit.
    However, I think many people thought that Madoff was acting on that information, on behalf of his clients. Putting in trades in on their behalf first. i.e. information that should have stayed in the market making business was being passed on.
    Some of his institutional clients must have suspected he was doing that, but getting away with it … little did they realise that he was defrauding them, not other people. That said, I’d point out that many ordinary people were defrauded by Madoff.

    Madoff’s projected release date is November 14, 2139 … some Icelandic bankers may be looking at that and growing a little nervous perhaps 😉

  • Rik Hardy March 23, 2010, 12:25 am

    Good to know there are such persistent journalists. I get so depressed when our reporters keep asking members of the Independence Party and really jolly people wearing silly hats what they think of the mess here in Iceland, when they could be asking highly educated people who really know something about it and didn’t actually cause it.
    Of course many were duped by family or political ties into being “co-alcoholics” in the corruption, but there were also ringleaders whose aim was to commit deliberate fraud and theft – like Madoff.
    It’s time to call them in by name.

  • sylvia hikins March 23, 2010, 10:24 am

    Whenever I read about cutting edge investigative journalism, I am full of admiration for that dogged band of writers who are not highly paid but who are prepared to stand up and dig deep against greed and corruption. They are likely to be treated with hostility and contempt, at times putting their own lives on the line. In the cosy confines of our own homes, we, the public read and discard their stories, never really appreciating the risks that have been taken on our behalf. I’m sure that even in Niceland you have felt that ugly edge of threat Alda and wondered if the exposure was worth taking. But you kept your Blog going and whatever the issue, Blogs like yours make it harder for the truth to remain concealed. It may feel like David against Goliath, but just look what that little guy was able to do!!!
    sylvia from viking wirral

  • Voyager March 23, 2010, 4:24 pm

    What a fascinating conference. Too bad they did not have translation service, so many interesting stories there were. Was your talk recorded and available as a podcast somewhere?
    V.

  • idunn March 23, 2010, 5:20 pm

    ” I also learned a lot from the lecture about blogging itself and its inherent potential…”
    – Alda

    More so all the time. The common perception may increasingly recognize the wide variety of valuable sources available, and that some of them can be more reliable than major media.

  • TomThumb March 23, 2010, 7:45 pm

    Grav10 sounds like important work and I am grateful that the community of journalists has those who are willing to take the risks to expose corruption. Here in the U.S. our local papers are tied to local advertisers and local commerce. As a result, most of our news has to have the consent of the supporting firms and topics which involve dissent rarely are covered. I am wondering how long it will take for online newspapers to become the only genuine news sources.

  • tom joseph aka tj3 March 24, 2010, 10:53 pm

    Gräv10 has a spirit so needed all over the world right now.

    As TomThumb said above, United States newspapers are truly tied to being careful and not saying much of anything except the obvious and the familiar.

    Blogs can be insane and rabid or just poorly done but the best blogging is no different than the best writing of any kind.

    It is like the computer and technology writer Ester Dyson said “on the other end of all the wires it is just people”.

    Online “papers” and blogs can move beyond the constraints of catering to commercial interests or ideology.

    Just to vent:… I am upset how many “papers” and blogs and online sites and magazines ignore things until they come crashing down.

    The most weird example is how here in the United States there was surprise, in our media and government when the Soviet Union collapsed. They were surprised because they never paid attention to the Russian people only the big wigs and commissars and stars of the Soviet era.

    The whole story was there living in the millions of people there, who were who were fed up with the official line of propaganda that the Soviets put out. It was boring and unbelievable. Sort of reminds me of the conventional press in the United States today which needs so much to breathe in the spirit of Gräv10.

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