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The Scandinavian press unions voice their concern

Last week, the journalists’ unions in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland issued a formal statement expressing deep concern about the state of the media here in Iceland.

The statement outlines their view that freedom of the press and freedom of speech have recently been under attack in Iceland. This based on the fact that a host of experienced journalists and reporters have been laid off, most notably by Morgunblaðið, Iceland’s oldest and most established paper. The owners of Morgunblaðið recently appointed Davíð Oddsson, former Director of the Central Bank and ex-PM of Iceland, editor-in-chief [I wrote about this here]. As one of the main players in the Icelandic meltdown, Oddsson is currently being investigated in connection with the collapse.

The statement goes on to cite the critical importance of a free and independent media in Iceland, especially at this time. It also expresses particular concern that leading members of the Icelandic journalists’ union are among those who have been let go [including the head of the union, who was dismissed when Doddsson took over at Morgunblaðið] and that, when they try to defend their colleagues, they are accused of serving their own interests. The statement ends with the proclamation that it is the obligation of the press unions making the statement to speak up when freedom of the press and freedom of speech is under fire in their neighbouring countries.

Amen!

The impact of the statement was felt around here immediately. Blogs buzzed, as did Facebook. The prevailing feelings among most Icelanders were gratitude and relief. You know how, when you’re living inside a dysfunctional system, and someone comes from the outside and validates that for you, how great that feels? It was like that. That little gesture of support from the outside was like a shot in the arm.

Indeed, the scenario they describe is spot-on and maybe even worse than they know [I’ll elaborate in the next post]. It’s strange being inside of it. However, it’s something we’ve learned to live with here, probably much the same as people in the former East Bloc learned to live with their state-controlled media – the difference being that our state-controlled media [RÚV] is the one that most people trust today, as opposed to the privately-run media.

Iceland has two daily newspapers – Fréttablaðið and Morgunblaðið. In addition, there is DV which is published three times a week if I’m not mistaken, and Viðskiptablaðið, a business paper that is now solely online. Of those, the two former are the most prominent. Fréttablaðið is owned by Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson of Baugur Group and his clan, and is delivered free to all households in the capital area, and distributed free to select locations outside the capital. Morgunblaðið is a subscription paper; it was traditionally the mouthpiece of the Independence Party but over the past decade or so moved away from partisan lines and became a necessary antidote to Fréttablaðið, that is until the appointment of Doddsson flushed its credibility down the toilet.

And so, we read our newspapers with filters here. Everyone I know does, because everyone knows just what interests lie behind every paper. Personally I don’t use the print media for anything more than light diversion.* I flip through Fréttablaðið in the morning while I’m having my breakfast since, well, most of it is fluff anyway. The only things I really read are the daily columns written by noteworthy experts such as Þorvaldur Gylfason, and the occasional editorial. Morgunblaðið I never see any more since I was one of the thousands of people who canceled their subscription when Doddsson was appointed, and I only log on to mbl.is when I absolutely have to. DV I don’t shell out for [although they have been doing some good things in investigative reporting in the last while] and Viðskiptablaðið I don’t pay to read, either.

Predictably, Morgunblaðið served up an antagonistic reaction to the abovementioned statement. It ran a generic news item about it initially, then followed up by a short interview with the publisher, Óskar Magnússon, who oozed indignation and went on to discredit the unions and insinuate that they had been fed propaganda by their Icelandic colleagues. Sigh. So predictable these people, in their feeble protestations.

Surely someone will now turn up in the comments and point out that the Independence Party**, which is now – again – in bed with Morgunblaðið, has regained all the support it lost right after the meltdown last year. And they will be right. The IP is currently in the opposition and is doing its best to thwart just about every little gesture the government makes towards recovery — and because the current government has to make all the painfully unpopular decisions, it is losing support. And that support is — astonishingly enough — returning to the meltdown party. And they’ve got Doddsson over at Morgunblaðið, rewriting history. But more on that tomorrow.

IT’S BALMY AND BEAUTIFUL
On this first day of the Copenhagen climate change summit. Temps hovering around the freezing mark and hardly any wind. Today around 3pm there was the most incredible sunset happening over in the west … I love these long, drawn-out sunsets that we get here in the winter. They are truly amazing. Right now it’s 1°C [34F]. Sunrise was at 10.59 this morning, and the sun set at 3.37 pm.

* Which seems to be the fate of much of the print media these days, anywhere in the world.

** Independence Party – the party that was most instrumental in leading Iceland down the path of no return.

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  • JD December 7, 2009, 10:59 pm

    Interesting post. What’s happening in Iceland is happening everywhere though. The NY Times, The Guardian, the AP, Washington Post, LA Times, and just about every local newspaper here in the States is laying off staff, both editorial and from the business side. TV news and web news outlets are also paring back, as I know from personal experience. Having a free press and a robust media business are not mutually exclusive though. Oddsson’s appointment probably just clouds the unpleasant fact that the newspaper business is in serious trouble, with the keyword being business. It sucks, and will make an interesting case study soon. (“What do you do when your longstanding business model comes under attack by new distribution platforms? Give away your product for free? Probably not a good idea…) Of the four local outlets, you refuse to read one, don’t pay for three, and barely read the free option. Multiply that by the rest of the nation, and then you get unions issuing statements of support because they see what is coming their way. And it will eventually. I don’t have any answers though. Government subsidies and support for media are a bad idea. What’s left? Government media? Every nation has their own version of Pravda?

  • sylvia hikins December 8, 2009, 12:43 am

    It’s obvious that your two newspapers will manipulate the news and undermine your government at every opportunity. In the U.K in the 1970’s and 80’s we had a thriving alternative press that survived on shoestring budgets. What about setting up a Reykjavik Free Press?

  • BRADSTREET December 8, 2009, 12:52 am

    I was talking to someone in Italy shortly after Berlusconi came to power. “He owns most of the TV stations, digital channels and news magazines. Guess what…he won!”
    In Britain, Rupert Murdoch has voiced his hatred of the BBC. He has said that he dislikes its Left Wing attitudes (and the fact that it is the main rival to his satellite channel SKY TV has nothing at all to do with his dislike…)
    The world is full of powerful people who want to stamp out dissenting opinions, and I’m afraid that it’s up to people of good intent to make sure that they don’t. It’s at time like this that the internet becomes so important. Whilst there is more than one voice, the truth can still be heard.

  • James December 8, 2009, 1:15 am

    I was about to say that freedom of the press and freedom of speech haven’t really been eroded because the changes are commercial, not due to constitutional / statutory / human rights changes. However, on thinking about it, when ex-Prime Ministers are making those changes effectively on behalf of an opposition party, then maybe they really are rights changes by stealth…

  • Fred December 8, 2009, 4:06 am

    All media is biased(even the,once great, bbc)so this story isn’t a surprise.The biggest surprise is that it took so long for the union to comment.
    Both the IP party and almost all the current government should be investigated as they all played a part in the crisis.The current government is doing badly in the polls because they are doing a crap job.They would have signed the icesave deal months ago if the opposition hadn’t protested and their negotiating skills wouldn’t impress a kindergarten.
    When families start feeling the extra pinch of the new taxes early next year there will be more protests and this government will go the same way as its predecessor.
    The sad part of this is that Iceland doesn’t have anyone who inspires confidence at the moment.The icesave dispute should be resolved in the courts but this government seems to be too scared to go in that direction and would rather sacrifice this,and future,generations in order to join the EU.
    We need another Vigdís Finnbogadóttir.

  • Petri Aho December 8, 2009, 8:44 am

    At least they haven’t started using newspeak or rewriting old news yet..

    But I’m glad the cat is out of the bag, not that it makes any difference. They’ll just shush it down and after a while it’s business as usual. In the end people are like sheep, they forget so fast. And that’s true everywhere.

  • Joerg December 8, 2009, 9:54 am

    Isn’t there somewhere a place for all those laid off journalists to create their own platform?

    The reactions by Morgunblaðið to this statement seems to be very Doddsson-style – never bothering to present any matter-of-fact counter arguments, which might be difficult to find in this case anyway, but instead discrediting and deriding the intentions of the critics, mostly on a personal level – and if it suits the purpose, resorting to xenophobia. It is a very elitist and arrogant concept of people as a herd of sheep, easily influenceable by “rabble-rousers”. And the bad thing is – ok, you already said it – in this they seem to be partly right. All the more so it is important to have media and blogs, presenting a different Iceland outside of those mainstream media controlled by egomaniacs and their lapdogs.

  • alda December 8, 2009, 10:12 am

    Thanks for the input, everyone!

    JD – What do you do when your longstanding business model comes under attack by new distribution platforms? Give away your product for free? — well, that’s what most bloggers do. Of the four local outlets, you refuse to read one, don’t pay for three, and barely read the free option. — yes, but I DID pay for one, and was quite happy to do so, until they completely shot their credibility.

    Silvia, Joerg – there are Icelandic online news sites and mags springing up all over the place, so that’s where many of the laid-off journos are going.

    Fred – We need another Vigdís Finnbogadóttir. — Vigdís was merely a figurehead – she had no power.

  • JD December 8, 2009, 5:07 pm

    Alda, I think bloggers definitely have a role in the new media “ecosystem.” But as you have said on numerous occasions, your blog doesn’t pay the bills. It certainly is a great platform for Brand Alda though. News content production is time consuming, expensive, and requires some professional expertise, so there must be an equally robust business side in order fund the enterprise. (And pay the mortgages of the people who work there.) Free distribution is not sustainable unless there is a flourishing advertising market, something that doesn’t exist now, and might not ever. I hope that some, or any, of the startups that you mention will be successful. Most won’t, and it will likely have nothing to do with the quality of their writing/reporting, or the passion they put into the product. Their task is made even more difficult by the attitude displayed by Fred. To dismiss “all media” as biased is pure, 100% BS. Flippant, uninformed statements like that are a disservice to those who devote their careers to the ideal of a free press. Are there outlets and journalists that use their platforms for personal and business gain? Absolutely. The public gets the media it deserves though. Pay more attention to salacious gossip than in-depth reporting, and there will be more places for you to get that information. We are perilously close to having a press that cannot adequately provide a needed check on government and business power. If that happens, the current “biased media” will seem like the good old days.

  • idunn December 8, 2009, 6:46 pm

    ” the difference being that our state-controlled media [RÚV] is the one that most people trust today, as opposed to the privately-run media.”
    – Alda

    For the record, I tend to trust your version of events. Thankfully there are such alternatives now in these troubled times.

    One issue presently before the US Congress is that of electronic equality. Briefly, so that a large cable provider (and ISP) such as Comcast, which has agreed to purchase NBC (America’s oldest TV network), would have to deliver all data to subscribers equally, not, perchance, in favoring data of its choice (such as from NBC), and slowing delivery of others. Those opposed to this proposed law, which upholds the status quo, cite freedom of the market, this being disingenuous at best, as real freedom lies in the free flow of information.

    It might be noted, without myself knowing the particulars one way or other, that the real threat to freedom of the press in Iceland may come not so much from who owns corporate newspapers, but who controls Iceland’s ISPs, and to what degree the citizens retain a free flow of data. Or, as you noted, in how they choose to believe and use this.

  • CarolQ December 8, 2009, 11:51 pm

    Well, I’m just glad that we have you, Alda, as our information about the current situation happening in Niceland.

    On a different note: Did you get some great shots of the sunset? That and the nice weather is your little bit of joy at this time. Do enjoy that as much as you can.

    I’m not the smartest cookie in the jar regarding your country’s meltdown but if people such as yourself continue to speak out (blog) then the truth will make Iceland better and can/will help the situation. Nothing lasts forever – good or bad.

    I have seen your blog go from a nice little bit of fluff to a hard-hitting bullet so don’t give up!

  • Simon Brooke December 10, 2009, 1:01 pm

    Look in the mirror, Alda. That’s the future of ‘the free press’, of journalism, in Iceland – and, in fact, around the world.

    Every industry is the product of an economic opportunity. The economic opportunity which enabled newspapers was the development of a cheap, reliable printing press in which text could be set up and reproduced relatively quickly and cheaply. That innovation enabled what we know now as journalism, and incidentally put out of business the travelling chapmen, minstrels and story-tellers who provided the dissemination of news and comment before them.

    That revolution is now dead. Face it, Alda: you are a journalist, and someone who is vibrantly interested in the social and political life of your nation. And you don’t read the newspapers. Why not? The business model of newspapers is not merely broken. The newspapers have fallen into the control of a kleptocracy (not just in Niceland – look at Robert Maxwell, Conrad Black, Rupert Murdoch, the Barclay twins). The newspapers no longer represent a vibrant ecosystem of competing opinions and points of view; they represent the point of view of those who intend to become our masters. And so we – you, I, people interested in current events – no longer read them.

    The newspapers complain that it’s the Internet that is killing them. It isn’t. What’s killing them is that they no longer attract readers. That is partly because the Internet gives the audience access to more pluralistic and democratic voices – such as yours – but it’s also because the newspapers (with a very few, very honourable, exceptions) have become sterile haunts of shock-jockeys, crypto-fascists, and those with an obsessive interest in vacuous celebrity.

    [rant]A man who makes money hitting balls with sticks has a row with his wife and crashes his car into a tree. That’s news? That’s headline news? That’s international headline news? Aye, as we say in Scotland, right.

    And they’re surprised we don’t buy their filthy gossip-sheets?[/rant]

    The future of news has to be the future of citizen news. Which means, of course, that there isn’t going to be a lot of money in it. We need more blogs like yours. Those blogs need to endorse one another, feed readers to one another, come together into cohesive webs of opinion. It’s already happening, and it will only accelerate.

    But the free expression of opinion which guarantees the oversight of our democratic institutions is (for now) safe. You have shown us the future, and it works.

    If you’re interested I wrote an essay on this from a technology point of view four years ago, here:
    http://www.journeyman.cc/dogfood/story/article_31.html
    It’s slightly dated but much of it is still valid.

  • alda December 10, 2009, 2:45 pm

    Thank you, Simon. As you know, I very much appreciate your support, not to mention your belief that “if you want a free media you have to pay for it.” 😉

  • Sapphire December 10, 2009, 7:23 pm

    That’s why it’s so important for people like you to spread the world about freedom of speech issues.

    How do you see the future of media in Iceland?

  • The Fred from the forums December 11, 2009, 9:04 pm

    Since another Fred has been posting comments here I’ll use the name “The Fred from the forums” instead.

    If you’ve seen two different writing styles and points of view under my name, that’s the reason. I haven’t developed multiple personality disorder (wait, would I know if I had?).

  • Bill Douglas January 20, 2010, 5:54 pm

    Alda, I must thank you for shedding some light on what is happening in Iceland. With the state of U.S. politics being what it is, it’s very difficult to throw stones at the politicians in another country. However, it’s extremely difficult for me to understand how the self-proclaimed ” greatest genius in all of Iceland” is put at the helm of what was (at one time) a very fine newspaper. With all of the controversy surrounding his (David Oddsson) involvement with the financial collapse in Iceland, I can’t understand how any sane person or group of people would ever trust him again. But, as I said previously, we have much the same problem in the U.S. with having to deal with the same morally deficient scoundrels in every election. I’ve been visiting Iceland since I was stationed in Keflavik NAS in 1965. You have a beautiful country full of wonderful people and I hope that one of them will step forward to lead the country out of it’s present difficulties. Long live free press everywhere.