Who's controlling who? Interestingly, what struck me the most when I was in Rekjavik in mid-December was the lack of agreement and uncertainty I encountered over who were actually running the place: you could call it lack of regulation of course, but it came across as a more fudamental uncertainty about who controlled the watchers and who controlled those who were supposed to watch the watchers.
Surreal After I described my visit there as "surreal" in this post, Ashok asked me in which way, and I answered surreal as in walking into a bad dream wide awake or into a surrealist
painting where familiar forms are melting before your eyes into something unrecognisable: not necessarily malevolent, but dizzying perhaps; disturbing. Now, this impression could of course have something to do with the fact that it was my last reporting trip in a very busy year; the fact that neither of the three editors I met with while there seemed to know who owned the newspapers they were charged with running - or a combination of the two.
Who owns what? As I got off the bus from Keflavik airport my emninent photographer, Hari, kindly picked me up and drove me to my appointment with Ólafur Stephensen, editor-in-chief of Iceland's second biggest newspaper, Morgunbladid. Ownership status at the time: the paper's mother company, Posthusid Arvakri, was technically broke, the editor was among several employees who hadn't received their December salary and they were in talks to find new owners.
Then, it was straight on to Frettabladid, who had been in talks to merge with Posthusid Arvakri, but a reporter told me Baugur's Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson had paid off a big debt for the paper (also previously controlled by a Bagur-led consortium) and now probably owned it. I was asked to verify the situation with the editor-in-chief, Jón Kaldal, who said he was uncertain about the actual ownership structure and could I please check with his boss Ari Edwald (clarified here).
Editor-in-chief Reynir Traustason of DV, a tabloid, was also rather unclear on the specifics of the ownership issue, but said the paper was working to cut all its connections to Baugur.
"Our sugar daddies are dead"
"In Iceland we are a split nation," the DV-editor explained: "there are those who follow David Oddson [head of the central bank] and those who are against him. Same for Baugur's Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson. We have our own word for those who follow Jón Ásgeir: Baugsmidlar.
Incidentally, the taxi driver who recommended I get in touch with Traustason in the first place, claimed Iceland was controlled by Baugur - due to its dominant role in Icelandic media.
"You know, the sugar daddy behind DV and Fréttablaðið was Baugur, but the sugar daddy behind Morgunbladid was Björgólfur Guðmundsson? Every media here has its problem. We had Jon Asgeir, they have Björgólfur, said the tabloid editor:
Like alcoholics on detox
"Cross-ownership has been a big problem in the media here. Now everyone is on his or her own because our sugar daddies are dead. Every company which gets money out of the blue gets sick, so Icelandic media was very sick. Now we have to stand on our own feet. We are like alcoholics on detox," he asserted.
Some would of course argue that is descriptive of the state the entire country is in, due to easy and high-risk credit (such as foreign currency loans), but my mind also jumped to a similar sentiment by Clay Shirky, from this interview:
A lot of working journalists, and especially print journalists, are in the position of being sort of kept women. They don’t really understand where the money comes from but, you know, their particular sugar daddy seems pretty flush, so they just never gave it much thought. And then one day the market crashes and they suddenly discover, “Wait a minute, we were a business? And our revenues had to exceed our expenses every year? Why wasn’t I informed?"
In DV's case, Traustason explained that with its sugar daddies dead, the tabloid had to downsize from 48 to 24 pages and cut about ten journalists. "Now we can probably live," he said, adding that 40 per cent of the paper's revenues came from advertisement, and it was hard to get as companies were collapsing, falling over, all around them.
Who's to blame?
Also, like all over the Westerns world, the Icleandic are asking why the media didn't spot the storm brewing - except, with the country in such a mess, much more so than in other countries. "Only in May, we covered the government's report on the good health of the economy," said Kaldal, who admitted media was guilty, but said; "We are guilty of believing hype, but that's a guilt the whole society should shoulder. The state is the one who really failed."
Still, it is perhaps no wonder the country's population increasingly turning to social media such as political blogs and Facebook to inform each other and vent their frustrations, as I describe in this article (I also reported on the story in Norwegian here before Christmas, but this blog post contains additional thoughts and previously unused material)
It must be said that everyone I met and talked to on Iceland were very helpful and accomodating: both to see me on very short notice and to give me so much of their time.
After I got back to Oslo and my story was published, a journalist I'd been in touch with emailed me to tell me about a new development:
He: "You might be interested to know that editor xx have come under fire since you were here. A reporter came forward and told the public how he had buried his story regarding a former manager of Landsbanki, the bank responsible for the Icesave debacle. At first he denied this but the reporter played a recording of a conversation where the editor tries to explain that if they run the story the newspaper will be 'killed'."
Me: "Interesting. Thanks for the tip. Seems the cross-ownerships /cross-interests of Icelandic media makes for the most fascinating intrigues, twists and turns."
He: "That´s true. Somtimes it feels like a bad soap opera."