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The real media scare. Lest we forget.

The DV editorial today is about the silencing that takes place in Icelandic society, specifically in the media. It provides a needed refresher of how things were here before the crash, when the media was owned by the oligarchs who went on to virtually bankrupt the country:

For example, many ministers from the Independence Party had their ministries terminate subscriptions to DV, as they were opposed to being written about in a critical way. Landsbanki, during the time of Björgólfur Guðmundsson [former main owner], imposed an advertising and subscription ban on DV. The sickness in society later became obvious. Parliament’s Special Investigation Committee into the Banking Collapse came to the conclusion that one of the main causes of Iceland’s economic collapse in 2008 was as a result of the overwhelming positive attitude and lack of criticism from the Icelandic media. For each “negative” news item about Landsbanki prior to the collapse there were, for instance, 12 to 13 positive ones. The problem was the the companies were writing their own news for the media. Four out of five news items in Icelandic media about the financial institutions were backed up with no independent research. The results were described in the SIC report: “The higher the ratio of news based on press releases, the more were positive. Conversely, the negative news items grew in tandem with analytical news reports from the media.”

Alarmingly, we seem to be returning to the same state of affairs as before. Despite its tabloid slant, DV is the only media outlet in Iceland that dares to be critical and analytical (RÚV sometimes does, but absolutely not often enough). The editorial goes on to say that we seem to be returning to a similar state of affairs. Most of the banks now refuse to advertise in DV because they don’t want to be “linked to negative reporting”. Meanwhile, they make a point of highlighting their alleged social responsibility. A fast-food outlet pulled all their adverts in DV because the paper reported on the negative effects of fast food – and went a step further by getting other fast food chains to also blacklist the paper.

The editorial mentions several more incidents, then remarks: “If [the paper] is punished for stating its opinion of sandwiches and pizzas, can people imagine what happens when more important issues are at stake – such as the complex commercial interests of those who own the companies?”

I know there are no easy answers, and this problem of the media is not limited to Iceland. But it is something we really, really need to be aware of. All of us, everywhere.

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  • Bill Crandall July 9, 2012, 8:16 pm

    Media cheerleading helped soften up US public opinion for the Iraq war. US media silence (or distortion, usually by presenting it as a balanced, some-say-this/others-say-that issue) on climate change helps keep us from doing anything about it. In pursuit of ‘balance’ that doesn’t offend their advertisers, the news here is often averse to actually saying what is true – more often “here’s your false equivalence, hey, you decide!”

  • Peter July 10, 2012, 5:08 am

    I honestly thought that most Icelanders were smarter than the rest of the world. As a Brit, having lived in California for 30 years, your situation is just a standard variation on the theme of “manufactured” news……..and so it goes on.

    I am from an era that remembers the Icelandic Cod Wars, and to see your gunboats ram the Royal Navy Frigates was just out of this world. Televisions weren’t that prevalent and a lot of us had to huddle around one that belonged to a more affluent neighbor, so when we saw your people give the British Navy a few bloody noses, you should have heard the cheer that erupted.

    I want to see Icelanders become those kinds of people again and not be taken in by American politicians and media. I hope I live long enough to see the day.

  • Jessie July 10, 2012, 10:44 am

    This seems typical of the dangers of business being in bed with the government, and is especially dangerous when it comes to businesses that own, as a small part of their overall operations, or otherwise have a large interest in, a national-distribution news organization.

    Why would Morgunblaðið ever post anything remotely critical of the Icelandic banking industry, when it is in bed with the banks, the politicians, and the morons behind the 2008 collapse — the very same people who maintain a collective amnesia about what happened and what led to the collapse (and yet who are simultaneously trying to re-write history), and who oppose transparency and reform?

    On the other hand, why anyone would take this newspaper seriously is beyond me, but this is a problem we see in a lot of places right now. People don’t seem to fully understand how a combination of big business and big government, working for their mutual benefit — not the public interest, but rather their own interests — affects the news we see and hear every day.

  • Andri July 10, 2012, 11:03 am

    Please stop thinking that people in Iceland are any different then anywhere else. We are not that special at all.

  • alda July 10, 2012, 11:11 am

    @Andri – did you read the last paragraph?

  • Andri July 10, 2012, 9:27 pm

    Sorry Alda, I was directing my comment at Peter above 🙂

  • hildigunnur July 11, 2012, 1:04 am

    Agree with Andri – the recent prez pick shows that unfortunately Icelanders aren’t any more clever than the rest of the world. Hopefully not much worse either, though. (and yes, this also as answer to Peter)

  • Peter July 11, 2012, 3:14 am

    I hope that I didn’t accidentally offend anybody, but please understand that my observations are based upon my childhood memories. In the UK, in the 1950s, Iceland was frequently quoted as a benchmark, vis-a vis other countries and we were shown statistics that indicated Iceland’s literacy rate at OVER 99%. This did not just refer to reading, writing and arithmetic, but was shown to include a sound knowledge of the sciences, international affairs, cultures in other countries and so on. Naturally, this has stuck with me all these years and it is really sad that events took the course that they did, whether you look at the banking debacle or Iceland’s internal politics. That’s all.

  • idunn March 1, 2013, 12:32 am

    Even as this comment is likely to remain lost down here, nevertheless one might comment on another threat to Iceland’s media and the liberty of her citizens.

    This has to do with Iceland’s interior minister Ögmundur Jónasson’s campaign to portray pornography as violence and thus ban it outright from Iceland.

    Possibly a noble idea, although one might question why the portrayal of sex might necessarily be equated with violence. Furthermore, a notion decried by any number of civil liberty advocates, among them the Netherlands’ Open Source Working Group and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. It is argued that preventing the dissemination of porn online in Iceland will require the draconian steps already practiced in North Korea and China.

    Hardly the image the otherwise free and open society of Iceland might like to foster, or indeed the reality of same. There are various forces in this world, certainly not limited to the United States and its ilk, that would dearly love to censor the Internet by entirely controlling it and everyone involved. Iceland has thus far through various initiatives stood against this creeping erosion of liberty, and as a beacon of enlightenment in the world. More than a pity if that was lost through no more than the puritanical inhibitions of a few.

  • Michael Gordon March 22, 2013, 3:28 am

    When I lived in Iceland back in 1986, the saying was that in the United States, news was entertainment, but in Iceland it is the voice of the parties, except for one paper, which if I can remember was indeed DV, somewhat of an experiment in independent reporting and thus potentially more worthy.

    With regard to other comments I will say that Iceland is unique of all the places I have traveled. Whether it remains unique is doubtful but its climate and geography will always breed certain kind of courtesy and a type of liberty that is not found in many places on Earth. Icelanders sometimes might not think it until they travel abroad.

    I have written on these pages before so I won’t keep repeating it even though I would like to. There is no place like Iceland, although it’s a bit wilder than the highlands of Scotland. A few months ago I discovered I’m about 1/4 Scot and that might explain my affinity for Iceland, the terrain is similar and comforting.