Wenche Behring Breivik: The secret interviews and forthcoming books

Well, what did you know: While journalists all over the world unsuccessfully were chasing interviews with the mother of Norwegian soloterrorist Anders Behring Breivik, she was giving almost daily interviews to NRK's former Russia correspondent Marit Christensen.

That much was made clear in VG's interview with Christensen months ago (behind paywall). But it soon became clear that there had been a fallout between the two, and people close to the late Wenche Behring Breivik were threatening to take legal action to stop the book.

Yet today the book is here, due to be launched at a press conference at publisher Aschehoug's later today. And it turns out Wenche Behring Breivik gave another interview on her deathbed, this one to former war correspondent Åsne Seierstad, who is due to publish her book on the twin terrorattacks in a few weeks (additional reporting here)

Will we get to understand more about her son and what shaped him from all of this?

According to Anders Givæver, Christensen's book is really just as much, if not more, about Christensen and how she experienced meeting, interviewing, getting to know and falling out with Wenche Behring Breivik.

Should be interesting, must read both books. First reviews of Christensen's book:

VG: "A dirty broadside". Dagbladet: "This is not the best book that could have been written with Wenche Behring Breivik as a source. But it is the only one we have." NRK: "This is not the mother's fault"

Update 02.11.2013: Having read Christensen's book I found it painful, important - and rushed. The book could have done with more work and more thorugh editing, and yet it's a moving portrayal of a very painful, tragic life and a mother who has been shamed on many accounts in media stories while never before telling her side of the story.

I find that I agree to a large extent with Kjell Lars Berge's review for NRK though I'm not sure about his final conclusion: The mother's story is an important part of the jigsaw puzzle of understanding Norway's worst mass murderer, but it didn't really give me a clear answer as to who can or cannot be blamed for her son turning out the way he did. If anything, it just made me reflect more on how complex life can be, how many factors contribute to turning us into whatever we become...


22/7: The frontpages commemorating last year's twin terror attacks on Oslo and Utøya

Last year Norway experienced the worst peacetime massacre in modern Norwegian history, these are some of the frontpages the country woke up to today - one year later to the day.

I kind of think the more minimalistic ones are the strongest ones, I especially like Aftenposten and VG's.

These were the frontpages Norway woke up to on 23 July 2011, the morning after the shocking twin terror attacks on Oslo and Utöya 22 July had left 77 people dead and others severely wounded.


Aftenposten: "You will never be forgotten"



VG: "Hope"



Dagsavisen: "Back from the darkness"



VG: "Hope", Dagbladet: "Dad's grief"


WWW inventor warns against call for comment sections to be placed under Data Rentention Act

- Don’t let Anders Behring Breivik become an excuse to encroach on human rights, said Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

Since the twin terror attacks on Utöya and Oslo 22/7 last year, Norway has seen demands to censor and monitor web communications grow stronger as people have looked for ways to prevent such atrocities from ever happening again.

The man who committed the atrocities has been portrayed as a terrorist who would have been unable to create the destruction he did without the internet – as he copy-pasted so much of his manifesto and strategy from web sources and committed his crimes with the explicit hope of making his manifesto a viral hit.

"If only someone had monitored the comment sections on far right-wing news sites and blogs better, could he have been stopped before he managed to slay 77 people?," is a question that has been asked repeatedly in many forms since 22/7.

Recently, The Norwegian Police Service (PST) even asked to have the comment sections of news sites and debate forums governed by the Data Retention Act in order to "better investigate hateful comments and threats towards people in authority." 

So obtaining a short interview with Berners-Lee when he was in Oslo speaking at Gulltaggen, a Nordic digital marketing conference, last week I asked him how he thought society should respond to the likes of Breivik, who relied heavily on the web to organise his campaign and to espouse his ideas.

"I think we have to be very careful with fundamental human rights. Here we have two different levels. On the first level, police should go to these sites were people are discussing hate crimes and infiltrate these," he said.

But he also warned that the authorities do not need extra powers to automatically monitor everyone on the planet.

"A normal person must be able to go the web to research a sensitive issue, such as a medical condition, safe in the knowledge that this will remain between him an the website," he said.

Berners-Lee  said he was concerned about how increased demands for monitoring the web, both from governments looking for greater powers to track down terrorists and companies looking to trade our personal web data for commercial purposes, threatens the very infrastructure of the web.

He described his worry that people in the end will no longer trust and use the web for e.g. researching sensitive things like depression if they fear everything they do online is being monitored.

On the Data Retention Act and similar initiatives, he had the following comment:

"If you collect a lot of personal data in once place this can easily become dynamite. You have a lot of sensitive information sitting there in a database, becoming a very attractive target for cyber criminals or rough states using hackers to attack other countries’ infrastructure where it is most vulnerable," he said, referring to how cyber crime and cyber terrorism is on the increase.

Talking to Norwegian intelligence sources when I interviewed Misha Glenny in connection with his new book ”DarkMarket: CyberThieves, Cybercops and You” in November, they confirmed cyber crime and cyber attacks on national infrastructure was also on the rise in Norway.

As for that Tim Berners-Lee interview: I’m used to opinions being strongly divided in the comment section on technology stories for VG, Norway’s biggest news site, but on this story every single commenter applauded Berners-Lee's comments.

Anders Behring Breivik joins the Unabomber, David Copeland and Zacarias Moussaoui

What do these terrorists have in common? The have all been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenics.

The psychiatrists tasked with determining the mental state of Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik today declared him to be criminally insane.

According to their evaluation, the terrorist who killed 77 people in Norway this summer is suffering from paranoid schizophrenia - just like the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, whose manifesto  Brevik copied large sections from word by word for his own manifesto.

The conclusions by the state appointed psychiatrists are of course controversial, and are bound to be debated for a long time. Many feel that this, declaring Breivik insane, is a way of letting hateful extremist ideology off the hook.

«Muslim terrorists are a product of Islamic hate-rhetoric. Norwegian terrorists on the other hand, could not possibly operate on the basis of an ideological background. No sir. The explanation for Norwegian-bred terror is to be found in the brain chemistry of the perpetrator,» wrote Norwegian blogger Paal Hivand (my translation).

There is some truth to that, but I suspect we might find various personality disorders or psychiatric disorders if we look closer at many terrorists and mass-killers, regardless of ideology.

The case that instantly sprang to mind when I read about the psychiatrists' conclusions today was Ted Kaczynski.  Comparing the two cases reveal fascinating similarities.

As Kaczynski, Breivik has also rejected the diagnosis, is likely to reject a plea for insanity from his defense and is also likely to claim paranoid schizophrenic  is a "political diagnosis”

This piece in Psychology Today is very interesting on that account:

Several (but not all) of the forensic psychiatrists and psychologists who examined Kaczynski diagnosed him as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia ...Though his defense attorneys tried to enter a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, Kaczynski refused, perhaps in part due to denial about his illness, a very common symptom of schizophrenia; or perhaps because of his own narcissism, not wanting to be maligned as mentally ill.

And it goes on:

….Terrorism is itself a form of madness. Perpetrators of terrorism express their rage at the world destructively, in a desperate, last-ditch and sometimes suicidal attempt to gain recognition, fame or glory for themselves and their cause and, ultimately, to give some shred of meaning to their otherwise meaningless lives. Terrorism is typically an infantile and narcissistic act of violence stemming from profound feelings of impotence, frustration, and insignificance.

That is perhaps why we find many other terrorists and mass-killers, from different ideological backgrounds, who have been diagnosed as  paranoid schizophrenics.

Among them, David John Copeland, who became known as the "London Nail Bomber" after a 13-day bombing campaign in aimed at London's black, Bangladeshi and gay communities, and admitted terrorist and 9/11 co-conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui. Evidence was also said to strongly support that Virgina Tech- Killer Seung-Hui Cho had paranoid schizophrenia.

Still, it’s not an easy conclusion to swallow in regard to Anders Behring Breivik, who meticulously planned and prepared his terrorist attack for many years.

I have read his manifesto twice, and he comes across as many things, certainly a narcissist, but insane? I'm not so sure.

Breivik may have grandiose and delusional ideas about saving Norway, his own importance in history, segregating races, breeding true Norwegians etc, but so did Hitler. If Breivik is criminally insane, why wasn’t Hitler?

However, at this stage it’s difficult to make any bombastic conclusions about Breivik's case as there are so many things we simply don’t know about the 230-page long psychiatric report on him.

So far, we’ve only heard the main conclusions, and very little about the background for how the psychiatrists arrived at them.

But what we do know is that with Breivik labelled both psychotic and paranoid schizophrenic - if these evaluations are not contested at the next stage of this process - it is very unlikely he will be allowed to give any of those long political speeches to the jury he had planned to make.

Neither will journalists be quite so keen on interviewing him. That would raise all sorts of ethical conundrums...

What global meltdown?

"Yes, yes, I understand perfectly: the global meltdown," said a British journalist I interviewed on Thursday when I told him the day was a busy news day so the story might run later.

"No, it's about the catalogue of errors made on 22/7, revealed on 22/7 and in the aftermath of 22/7," I replied.

Funny, albeit perfectly understandable, how the key headlines still revolve around 22/7, I thought to myself - and wrote as much on Google+

Then came Friday, Norway's then minister of justice and police resigned in a move, which, despite all protestations to the contrary, ended up being all about 22/7.

And today the terrorist behind 22/7, Anders Behring Breivik, will get to explain his heinous crimes in an open court hearing.

People, including many who survived the shootings on Utöya, are queuing up to see him, and the court will have to prevent him from turning the hearing into a PR-show for his manifesto - the one he claims the atrocities he committed on 22/7 only were a marketing ploy to promote the ideas in.

The global meltdown? It will just have to take the sideline for a while.

Norway’s minister of justice resigns to spend more time with his family

- I’ve cried almost every day since 22/7, Knut Storberget told the media when he resigned as Norway’s minister of justice and police Friday.

But he vehemently denied his resignation had anything to do with the Ministry’s growing catalogue of errors in handling the twin terror attacks on Oslo and Utöya 22 July.

It had nothing to do with how Norwegian police was slammed for poor rampage response on 22/7.

Nothing to do with how the emergency communications system broke down on 22/7.

Nothing to do with how a witness alerted the police to no avail about a suspicious, fully armed man (the terrorist) leaving the Oslo-bomb scene before he took off for Utöya.

Nothing to do with how the terrorist could park his car right outside the Government headquarters he bombed to pieces despite weighty reports recommending that area be shut off for traffic.

Nothing to do with how the terrorist, Anders Behring Breivik, cannot be sentenced as a terrorist because the police’s computer systems are so out of date (it runs on Windows NT 4.0) they can’t handle the ”new” penal code passed in 2009.  

And nothing to do with all the other critique levelled at Storberget recently, but rather a move he had planned together with his family as early as February.

However, in a move slightly more related to the events on 22/7, the Ministry itself will be renamed to the Ministry of Justice and Emergency Preparedness

”…the Ministry’s internal organisation will be examined in order to improve the Ministry’s ability to handle crises. The Ministry will be given additional resources. In order to visualise these changes, it has today been decided that the Ministry of Justice and the Police from 1 January 2012 will have its name changed to the Ministry of Justice and Emergency Preparedness,” we could read in the same press release that announced Storberget’s resignation.

So now what?

Storberget has been replaced by Labour Party veteran Grete Faremo, a move I saw more than one online commenter applaud, and greet with such sentiments as ”finally a minister of justice who has balls”.

Maybe she’ll even have the balls to ban vans and cars from parking right outside the entrance to the Norwegian parliament like this (spotted by Pia Prestmo on 13 October 2011):


The Utöya election and lessons in social media campaigning

“I for one want to vote the Utøya-generation into office.”

I’m not certain where I read that statement now: on Facebook, Twitter, blogs.

It probably flashed past me frequently on all those platforms after 22/7, and after the municipal and county elections last moth it’s clear that many people did exactly that:

Several of those who so tragically lost their lives on Utöya were elected, as were several of those who survived the atrocities.

That must be unparalleled: How, as a symbolic action, people voted for those who lost their lives but who’s names had not removed from the election lists.

As for those who survived the atrocities and were elected, it will be interesting to see how their influence will play out.

22/7 was certainly a big influence on the election, but mostly in a positive way.

Let it be that after 22/7 too many politicians just trotted out the same old slogans and solutions which now feels oddly like ghosts from a bygone age.

There were also politicians who met the tragedy with great compassion and strength, who somehow became much more real, more human as a result of it.

That side of them was probably always there, just now we got to see it.

I thought a lot better of many politicians for it. Not that it made me vote for someone I otherwise wouldn’t have voted for, but I hope it will lead to a wider recognition that letting your guard down can be a good thing – even for a politician.

Also, for the first time in perhaps a decade or more I felt good about how I cast my vote. See, in the words of an acquaintance, I voted for the internet party.

Not that there is a party by that name in Norway, but it was the first election where social media played a major role for me:

I voted for lots of really clever people I know from the Internet (in Norway you can cast personal votes for your favorite candidates from more than one party at municipal and county elections).

But among those candidates there wasn’t one I voted for because I’d seen him or her with a Twitter-profile stating their name and their political party.

I never follow those kind of Twitter-users back. All the folks I voted for were people I know, either just online, or online and in real life, for a long time and not primarily as politicians.

They were all people I “know” because of the work they do, the blogs they write, or because we have interests in common.

In fact, while casting my vote I found myself thinking I could easily have voted for a blogger I’m a big fan of despite being on the opposite side of the political divide.

What I’m trying to say, both when it comes to my “internet party” and those politicians who let their guard down and thereby became more real, more human after 22/7:

Personality matters, humanity matters, being real/genuine/allowing yourself to be vulnerable and go off script is a good thing.

Nothing revolutionary there you may say. In fact it’s all very Cluetrain.

But it is also quite the opposite of the social media strategy many politicians and/or political parties seem to subscribe to.

To them just getting a Twitter-profile spewing out politically correct or mundane and largely uninteresting stuff seems to equal a social media strategy.

Well, it’s not a very successful social media strategy.

It has to be personal.

Not necessarily in the sense that you have to share personal stuff, far from, but you have to get a sense of the person behind the social media profile even if it’s just their genuine passion for a certain subject.

But it has to be genuine, and it’s definitely not a short-term fix.


How the wheel turns: from 9/11 to 22/7

Just how will the wheel turn, how will the public debate shift, after the terror attacks of 22/7? Food for thought from Björn Stærk:

...After the terror attacks in Norway on July 22, perpetrated by a fanatical opponent of multiculturalism and the Islamization of Europa, it happens again.  The wheel turns.  We won’t pretend that everything has changed, no more than everything changed on 9/11.  The threat from Islamist terrorism is the same.  The immigration challenges of Europe are the same.

But reality has shifted sufficiently that you cannot mindlessly apply the same old models to the new situation.  And, this time, the pundits who reveal themselves to be most out of touch may well be precisely those right-wing critics of immigration and Islam who took the lead after 9/11...

Would you believe, after 22/7 lots of people have called Norwegian news sites asking that their anti-Islamic comments be deleted?


Photo from Flickr: "Prayer Wheels" by Eric Montfort", republished here under a CC-licence

Oslo terrorist attack just a marketing ploy to promote the terrorist’s anti-Islam manifesto?

Anders Behring Breivik might have killed close to 100 people to market a manifesto partly copied from the Unabomber.

I didn’t know whether to cry or throw up while reading the manifesto published by the man who has admitted to the twin terror attacks on Oslo Friday.

When people started discussing and publishing excerpts from the manifesto – which also includes a detailed description of the attack, how it was planned and a diary leading up to 22/7 – on Google+ last night, there were those who said media would be playing into Breivik's hands by covering it.

There is some truth to that as the author of the manifesto more than hints that the atrocities that left at least 77 people dead were just a marketing ploy for his 15000-page manifesto.

Still, I believe transparency is more productive than secrecy in such instances, and we need to understand the terrorist's motivations in order to expose his contradictions and fallacies – even though it requires more than a degree of sobriety from the media when covering it.

As a blogger it’s my gut reaction to always link to my sources, but in this case I’ll leave it up to those interested to look up «2083. A European Declaration of Independence».

In it the author describes the necessity of using "terror as a method to wake up the masses" to the silent Islamification of Europe - aided, abetted and legitimized by “multiculturalist traitors”, cultural Marxists (or relativists) and feminists.

I was called up yesterday and asked if I could possibly put together an analysis in 2,5hrs of the attacks in Norway for Mail on Sunday (which was a challenge I couldn’t resist: the article can be found here).

That was before we knew of the manifesto.

Now, having read it, I guess I should be gratified by just how spot on my analysis of Behring Breivik’s motivation was:

This was an attack on Norway’s Labour party, which members are described in the document as some of the worst cultural Marxists aiding and abetting multiculturalism and Islamification.

The author also pays tribute to folks like Pim Fortuyn, Geert Wilders and BNP - and Tony Blair is describe as one of the most dangerous cultural Marxists' of them all.

The manifesto’s author quotes a wide range of sources – including Theodore Dalrymple, Melanie Phillips, Mark Twain. Every time a writer I like, such as Mark Twain, is mentioned I just felt like screaming:

“No, not in my name – don’t use this as support for your crazy arguments.”

The document is an awful muddle of reactionary Conservatism, Christianity, anti-Islam, anti-Marxism, philosophy and practical advice to would be terrorists, but most of it is both eloquently and lucidly written.

Part of what is so sickening is how every argument he touches on, even the few I agree with, becomes contaminated by his madness.

For instance, I’m not a big fan of Marxism, the ideology, but the context he puts this all into, and the actions he recommends based on his conclusions, makes me physically sick.

What we’re presented with is a manifesto for a terrorist BNP, a terrorist movement akin to Al-Qaeda only that it will fight for a nationalist, Christian-Conservative society free from Moslems, Feminists and Cultural Marxists.

The author believes this will be accomplished by 2083.

However, by comparing the two manifestos, right-wing news site Document.no revealed that huge chunks of the "2083 manifesto" probably is copied from the manifesto of the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski....

This story just keeps getting more and more surreal.


Peace prize winner Obama meets the press

Much of the media speculation ahead of Obama's flying visit to Norway today has centered on what the one question he has said he will take from Norwegian press will be. And the question is:

Annette Groth, The Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK): "Giving the peace prize to you has been described as premature, how can you use the prize to fulfill its intentions and counter that criticism?"

Obama reminds us that, as he said when he received it, the prize came as a complete surprise to him and others might have deserved it better, but says he will use the prize to address climate change, terrorism and a whole host of initiatives. The goal is not to win a popularity contest, but to help further America's goals, he asserts. He concludes that if he's successful the criticism will die down, if he's not successful in those tasks no awards can hide it.

The one question US press was allowed to ask, of course, turned out to really be three in one...

Much has been made of how Obama has cut his visit to Norway very short, snubbed a lunch invitation from the Norwegian king and declined to attend some of the functions the peace prize winner traditionally attends, but I'm not too surprised given how contentious, and in some respects awkward, this year's prize is - not at least in the US. In a talk after meeting the Norwegian prime minister Obama blamed all the work he had to do back in DC before the year comes to an end for having to cut his Oslo-visit so short.

Still, it's been rather amusing to follow the speculation among Norwegian journalists and Twitterati on Twitter as to what the one question would and should be...

Update 10/12-09 15:30 CET: See also John Einar Sandvand: How Norwegian news sites covered the Nobel peace prize cermony

Outrage as vandals wreck gingerbread town

Several hundred gingerbread houses were smashed to pieces as vandals broke into a tent harbouring "the world's biggest gingerbread town" in downtown Bergen last night.

Outrage over the havoc wrought by "the gingerbread vandals" was the first thing that met me when I logged on to Twitter this morning, and the story is currently all over the frontpages of Norway's national news sites.

A police officer investigating the affair has told the country's media that to wreck hundreds of gingerbread houses made by Bergen's children the perpetrators must be close to retarded (in Norwegian), and it has been suggested that the outrage will be even bigger if it turns out the mischief was wrought by a "foreigner" (here to be understood as someone not born in Bergen as there are those who feel Bergen is like a nation within a nation. People from other Norwegian cities, especially Oslo, are often made to feel like foreigners there).

The gingerbread town is a popular tradition in Bergen dating back to 1991 and has more than 5000 fans on Facebook, according to VG.no. There's currently a flurry of proposals on Facebook, Twitter ( #pepperkakeby ) and in mainstream media about rebuilding the town - and, more flippantly, campaigning for homeless gingerbread men and women. 

Christmas traditions can certainly be serious business in Norway. For my last column for Viking Magazine, I talked to a woman who had something close to a Phd on Christmas dinners. She said Christmas is like a food memorial feast, and few traditions are as sacred to Norwegians as those associated with this time of the year.

Not because of the religious aspects, but because there's nothing like this season's food to realize family belonging - and, mind you, there's a lot of time and effort that goes into making this food. I remember how devasted I was when I lived in London, or Hertfordshire strictly speaking, and my perfect gingerbread house, carefully decorated, only lasted a few days before it melted before our eyes in the dampness of our flat (though or landlord insisted it was only "condensation", and when I called a solicitor friend for advice on how to get out of the fixed term contract he said something to the tune of how 'tenants in this country have all sorts of rights, but acting on them could ruin your life'. When we still tried, our landlord sent a former MI5 agent around to our flat to have chat, but that's a different story). 

My point? Christmas cookies, and especially ginger bread houses, is no laughing matter.

I know this story easily lends itself to ridicule, and a good sub would have a ball with it, but last time anything remotely similar happened to me I was 27 and I still found it depressing (to make matters worse, we tried twice: but the last house was constructed by my then partner, who is Dutch, and only stayed in one piece for a day).            

This gingerbread town was made by a kindergarden in a different part of Norway, and the photo is from Drammensbibliotekets Flickr stream, republished here under a Creative Commons licence

The Tyranny of International Index Rankings

International Index rankings are random and open to manipulation, an academic study suggest.

I'ts an illusion that Norway is the world's best country to live in, a Vg.no headline informed me this week, citing an academic paper by professor Karl Moene et al - but the article didn't link either to its award-winning source or the actual paper, which is here, and makes for very interesting reading.

I always thought there was something not quite right about those top ten lists of the best countries and cities to live in, especially since Norway and Oslo often bagged the top spot - and, frankly, I have lived in many better places. If I were to compare Oslo with Amsterdam, Brighton, London, Palo Alto, they would have very different pros and cons, and Oslo wouldn't be an obvious winner.

In fact, I'm inclined to think I had a better quality of life living in England than I have in Norway - especially if we disregard plumbing, housing and public transport;-) However, if I was still living in England, perhaps my conclusion would have been the opposite, and if I'd stayed in Palo Alto longer, perhaps that would have been my all-time favourite place to live. My inklings seem to be supported by the aforementioned study:

"International index rankings emphasize country differences where similarity is the dominant feature. The rankings of the Human Development Index, Freedom House, and Doing Business can be misleading, not because of wrong indicators, but because the estimation of the scores ignores inherent uncertainty. Re-estimated with a method that captures this uncertainty, it becomes clear that the practice of comparing adjacent countries is a rather courageous activity," the abstract reads.

It asserts that such rankings are close to useless when it comes to differentiating between Norway and other rich democracies, and are only useful for telling us who scores really high and low.

"One can hardly open a newspaper without finding a reference to an international index. International country rankings provide an instant idea of the relative success of a country vis-`a-vis other countries in the world.

"Their appeal lies in their simplicity. Their users need no more statistical knowledge than readers of the sports pages in the newspapers. Just as boxers and football teams are ranked according to their performance, countries are ranked according to their ability to provide a high standard of living, democratic rights, and an appealing business environment.

"Just as pundits use sport rankings to place their bets for the weekend, journalists use country rankings in their search for an easy way to finish their Saturday commentary and policy makers use the country indexes to guide their decisions over own policy and evaluate other countries. It seems like we are blessed with a tool that everybody can understand and that is appropriate for a wide range of purposes," reads the introduction.

I'm reminded of Jeremy Clarkson's less scientfic, but spot-on and immensly amusing take on international index rankings in "Let's be happy like the Danes"(2007), worth reading in full:

"Apparently the main reason why Danes claim to be so happy is that they always expect life to be worse than it really is. They expect to be cold. They expect to pay 95% tax. They expect to be decapitated by a gang of youths who’ve found the little mermaid has already had its head kicked off and are now looking for another target. They are therefore delighted when they get home to find their family still have all their limbs, that the heating is working and that their tax bill’s been reduced to 94%."

And as if to prove that human beings, especially a nation's guardians and those who are supposed to guard them, are vain creatures who sometimes find it easier to stir up a storm in a teacup than grapple with structural, long-term challenges that are not so easily or quickly resolved, professor Moene et al's study also warns:

"Media, policy makers and researchers often end up discussing the deep causes of a slight alteration in the internal [index] rankings. What is even more problematic, especially for the Doing Business Index, is that policy makers may design policies more to improve their rankings than to improve their real performance. Governments may be tempted to engage in what we denote “rank-seeking” behavior to improve the relative standing on the indexes more than the situation on the underlying phenomena." In other words, plenty of food for thought here, well worth a read.

Tienanmen + Twitter = Teheran. Journalistic balance + Social Media = Toast?

What's happening in Iran now tells us something important about Twitter as a news source and as a tool to help people self-organise, but why are mainstream commentators still struggling to get their heads around it?

My Twitter-feed is abuzz with people tweeting about and linking to stories on what's happening in Iran and what impact Twitter's key role in the uprising is having on mainstream media short-term, and will have for the long-term.

Many are those who are now predicting this will be the big shift in how we view the potential of social media. But just as I had pulled together a few of my favourite links on what was happening for a post at The Norwegian Online News Association's blog Monday morning, some of those less informed arguments against Twitter surfaced in an Op-ed in Norway's newspaper of record -leading to some interesting events and thoughts.

Twitter revolution?
Let me just recap and expand on some of those links I started with Monday morning for my international readers: First, I was taken by Antoine Clarke's thoughts on Tienanmen + Twitter = Teheran, an argument repeated often in the last few days - with Clay Shirky in his evangelic way even saying "This is the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media".

However, Richard Sambrook, whom I said on Monday has provided some of the most useful links from and about the upheavel in Iran on Twitter, urges us to call it an uprising, not a revolution, as what's happening is led by part of the political establishment in the country. He also provides an extremely useful analysis of using Twitter as a news source from Iran, concluding that it would probably serve only to mislead the average news consumer but would be more useful than mainstream media if you had a reasonable understanding of social media, the political situation in Iran etc.

Journalistic "balance" + Social Media = Toast?
Then, also via Twitter, I was alterted to an Op-Ed that repeated some of the usual logical fallacies about Twitter (in Norwegian). It wasn't a bad Op-Ed, in fact it was in part both fun and interesting, except it brought to court how journalists and politicians only used it to share trivia, and VIPs like the prime minister for oneway-communication, for the billionth time - not as arguments for how the VIPs don't get Twitter but as arguments against signing up to the microblogging service in the first place.

Three things occurred to me, and I'll start with the least scientific:

1) I wondered if the fact that these arguments are brought to court again and again is just a side-effect of (false) journalistic balance - as in: "Hey, we need some counterarguments, what should we say? Oh, yes: lots of people use it to share trivia and the prime minister never talks back." I'm reminded of the second rule journalism:

Be balanced. No matter what anybody says, find somebody to say the opposite. If a scientist claims to have a cure for cancer, find somebody who says cancer does not exist. If a man says "My name is Fred," make sure you find somebody who says "No, your name is Diane." Etc.

2) The Godfather of the Norwegian blogosphere, Hjorthen, put together a parody of the Aftenposten Op-Ed where he just exchanged 'Twitter' for 'Aftenposten' (also in Norwegian)- which threw up some brilliant formulations like how reading Aftenposten can easily become a continuation of garden parties in the posher parts of Oslo.

Demographically, Aftenposten is the Norwegian equivalent of The Times, and if you try exchanging Twitter for The Times next time you read one of those anti-Twitter articles it may lead to surprising insights. For one, Twitter is often accused of being elitist, attracting certain types of users, and for narrowing the users' horizon because they only follow people with similar values to their own - but all of those arguments could just as easily be used against The Times. For my part, I get a much broader pool of sources with much more diverse political agendas on Twitter than I'd ever get from reading newspapers, which leads me to the third argument:

3) I came to really appreciate the second part of this post by my friend Brian: "I’ve said it many times before, but it will bear constant repetition. When some new technique of communication is invented or stumbled upon, you should not judge its impact by picking ten uses of it at random, averaging them all out, and saying: Well that’s a load of trivial crap, isn’t it?!? How will “I am just about to make another slice of toast” change the world? The question to ask is: Of all the thousands of uses already being made of this thing, which one is the most significant? And then: Well, is that very significant? If yes, at all, then forget about the toast nonsense.

Jackie Danicki chips in with a telling anecdote in the comment section of that post:

I witnessed a discussion today in New York between a reporter for CNN, a reporter for Fox News, a reporter/anchor for NBC, and a producer for NBC - moderated by a veteran blogger whose wife happens to be Iranian. The blogger, Robert Scoble, had been taking CNN to task all weekend over their lack of coverage of the Iranian situation, and he and his wife were getting accurate reports (later confirmed by her family) via Twitter.

At the end of the panel - in which the mainstream media people all held their hands up and said that informed Twitter users were beating them at their own game - the CNN guy said, “Well, but if we weren’t doing our jobs, you guys would have nothing to link to. If we disappeared, so would a lot of Twitter content.” The moderator, not missing a beat, replied: “But you DID disappear last weekend, and Twitter filled the gap.” The CNN guy had to concede, and the comment was met with much applause.

Never underestimate the value of any tool which can help people to find solace in one another - like the samizdat during communist rule - let alone pass information which is important. I’m not sure why anyone would object to interest being taken in such a matter, apart from perhaps a general fatigue with all that is good in life. Too bad, so sad for them. :)

Update 19.06.2009, 14:30 CET: Just discovered this post on why journalists write so much rubbish about Twitter via Strange Corante, which explores a different line of reasoning.

Using social media to change the world

Here's something which, despite all the current doom and gloom, makes me both hopeful for the future of the world at large and despondent about my own industry (and if you'd rather focus on the former, feel free to jump past my chronology of frustration:-) )

A chronology of frustration:
Mainstream media discovers Twitter and moves en masse there. Incidentally, politicians discover Twitter about the same time and follow suite. "All of a sudden" everyone that is someone is talking about Twitter, hence media commentators are ordered to write about it and conclude - surprise, surprise - it's the social network of the elites.

Now, this secenario is taken from Norway, where journalists and politicians have really only discovered Twitter's potential over the last few months. Since I do my share of talking about why journalists should be on Twitter, and how they can use it in their work, I'm hardly going to complain that a much larger contingent of Norway's hacks have finally started using the microblogging site, but the scenario in the above paragraph is a potent reminder that our understanding of social media is defined by how we use it.

It's not the technology... As a result, our arguments about what social media is often become circular, and categorisations such as "it's the network of the elites" or "it's just people sharing trivia" will often reveal more about how people making those statements use or don't use Twitter than about the site itself. I am, of course, fully aware that sites such as MySpace, Facebook and Twitter have different demographics, but, at the end of the day, it's neither the technology, nor the individual social media brand as such I find interesting: it's what it enables us to do.

And since commentators, in Norway and elsewhere, have been so busy analysing what they and/or their colleagues talk about on Twitter lately, let's instead look at a compelling way to use the site to raise awareness of a social issue. I've been followingMark Horvath for a few weeks now, after a shout out from Tim O'Reilly alerted me to his Twitter profile:

Giving a voice to the voiceless
"Mark Horvath was a top TV executive in Hollywood and then lost it all. Out of work and with a home going into foreclosure, Horvath quickly became homeless. With no income or a roof over his head, Horvath still had to do something. So he started Invisiblepeople.tv, a personal first account video blog designed to give homelessness a face and voice," Mashable wrote in March.

Or to use his own words from 1 April this year: "Fifteen years ago I was a TV executive. Fourteen years ago I ended up homeless on Hollywood Blvd. I now am 14 years sober and am rebuilding my life but homelessness is once again a very real possibility. I lost my job in St Louis over a year ago. I took a job here in Los Angeles, moved here, and was laid off. I lost my house to foreclosure last week. With $45, a small camera and a laptop I started Invisiblepeople.tv, a homeless awareness vlog. I had to do something.

"Every week I take a few minutes to get to know a different person without a home. I learn how they survive, how they came to find themselves homeless, and who they call friends. I ask them about their biggest wishes, their greatest hardships and their plans for the future.

"Then, I introduce them to the world via social media. My video blog is a testament of the character and strength of people living on America’s streets. It gives them a voice and a chance to tell their story and become more than a coat sleeping on a park bench. To get the word out about my vblog, I began using twitter ..." (full post here, follow Horvath at @hardlynormal ).

Now, you may fault me, of course, for citing a former TV exec as an example, but his forceful example of being 'the change he wants to see in the world' somehow gives me more faith that we will find our way through the current crisis - and doing what he does while facing homelessness and personal ruin is truly something...

Here's video clip from The Berkman Centre, about The New Change Makers which is also well-worth checking out (via Paul Bradshaw on Twitter)

Brown aide Damian McBride's resignation: one more down for the bloggers

One down, two to go, says Iain Dale after Gordon Brown's chief political adviser Damian McBride resigned over what The Guardian dubbed "Labour sex smear scandal" .

I must admit I've stopped counting as I only keep half an eye on political blogs these days, but on this side of the pond there was of course the former Swedish Trade Minister 'blogged' down by Magnus Ljungkvist and now Mcbride is the latest of several UK government officials (John Prescott and Peter Hain springs to mind, more? ) who've had bruising encounters with Gudio Fawkes. I'm discounting that now rather ancient story about Trent Lott from the other side of the pond, I think the US is a different story alltogether as political bloggers there were so much ahead of the curve compared to Europe.

The role Guido's blog has come to play in the UK political landscape has been compared both by those who know him and those who don't to that played by Private Eye. 

There's also an interesting dynamic at work here between bloggers and journalists, or to quote from a post of mine from a few years back:

"My understanding is that the 'conspiracy' of which Guido is a part includes mainstream journalists. As Antoine explained in our last mp3, they tell Guido some juicy titbit. Guido reports it. Iain Dale reports that Guido reported it. The journalists can then report that 'internet sites' reported it - the plural being quite important because it makes omitting the actual names of the 'internet sites' a lot less ridiculous."

Last time I checked, Guido had some 250,000 readers, but I have to admit that was ..eh.. two years ago. It's interesting to note that McBride's resignation may be followed by that of Derek Draper, who has been set up as, or certainly come across as, the guy Labour put forward to try to emulate the success of the likes of Dale and Guido.

My only 'real-virtual-life' encounter with Draper has been his weird follow-unfollowing-follow behaviour on Twitter, but the other key bloggers in "Smeargate", Guido, Dale and Tom Watson, belong to those UK political bloggers I follow on something bordering on a regular basis (the latter is he of "Government Minister Resigns to Spend More Time With His Blog"-fame, one of my favorite headlines ever, and a man I find it very interesting to follow on Twitter, partly because he also tweets quite a bit about Web 2.0-stuff). Now I must admit at this point I'm rambling a bit beacuse I have my head down in another story I have to get back to, but follow the links for full story and context. I also meant to blog about the spat between Guido Fawkes and Derek Draper on The Daily Politics Show, one of those things I never got around to, but you can check it out here:


I you're unfamiliar with Guido's blog, check this post. Iain Dale and Jackie Danicki have more links to "Smeargate" coverage. Here's a Guardian piece with more background. Update 20:15 CET: I loved Mick Fealty quoting blog sceptic Geert Lovint, a man I don't think I'd normally agree with, on how 'blogging is a bleed-to-death strategy', only to say: "Mr Draper is a PR professional floundering in a world he barely understands, allowed himself to be entranced by the (what Lovint terms) 'banal nihilism' of one particular type of blogging, and now finds himself being bled to death through his own actions," in 'Yes, Derek Draper did get it wrong'

Icelandic media: "like alcoholics on detox"

So, Icleand has a new government, this one headed by Johanna Sigurdardottir.

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."

On the Icelandic government's collapse

Today Iceland's coalition government collapsed under the strain of an escalating economic crisis, finally some would say (thanks to @lauraoliver for alerting me to this story)

I was in Reykjavik to do story in December, on media of course, and it was a surreal experience. The sense of doom and gloom was not helped by Iceland's barren "moon landscape", nor by these weird sculptures along the road from Keflavik airport to Reykjavik (this photo was taken from behind a dirty bus window, click on the pictures to see them in full size):


"Welcome to the sinking Iceland," wrote Andri Snær Magnason, the author of «Dreamland: Self-help for a frightened nation»," when I contacted him by email (photo below snapped from the airplane when taking off.)

Reykjavik 056

"I'm not so sure Bjørgólfur Guðmundsson, or anyone else in Landsbanki were criminal: they could drive in 250 km/hrs and they did," said DV's editor-in-chief Reynir Traustasson, with reference to the Icesave scandal. But if Traustasson did not think the bank directors and others criminal, a large portion of the population certainly do, with signs comparing prime minister, Geir Haarde, and the head of the central bank, David Oddson, to bin Laden and worse flourishing at the weekly demonstrations.



I truly felt like a stranger in a strange world while I was on Iceland, and if we think we're having a bad time here due to the struggling economy it's nothing compared to the situation there. However, I was told one upside for journalists, who're facing massive job cuts, is the fact that the financial woes of the island has attracted so much interest from international press that some journalists have been able to compensate for loosing their Icelandic jobs by working as stringers for international agencies such as Reuters and AP (by the way, these photos are all my own haphazard shots, but I worked with a great photographer, Haraldur Jónasson - highly recommened: very professional, flexible, knowledgeable and fun to work with - while there)

Bonus link (added 27/1-09 8pm CET): Is this the most hated man in Iceland? (via Andrisig on Twitter)

Social currency anno 2008

"Newspapers have already lost one of their key selling points: Social currency. In 2008, all meaningful political discourse — the essential element of social currency — takes place on the Web."

Dan at Xark in "10 reasons why newspapers won't reinvent news", via Mindy McAdams, who on this particular point says: "If you think he’s exaggerating, then I think you are — sorry to break it to you — one of those people who still hasn’t figured out online. It’s getting a bit late for that now"

The Credit Crunch Song, and how to tell you're in a recession

As a blogger and journalist I must admit, as I've mentioned before, I fluctuate between Attention Deficit Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Order (to use Arianna Huffington's brilliant description of the two), and the scat... butterfly mind of the latter can't quite pinpoint when I started waiting for the recession to kick in.

Certainly, the slide in media shares - first fairly gentle at the backend of last year, then quite dramatic at the start of this - property and job markets contracting one by one (US, Spain, Denmark - to name some markets I follow) had something to do with it.

In short: I thought I'd see the footprints of the ghost of recession in the financial reports of media companies much sooner than I did - bearing in mind the cyclical nature of our trade.

And now that the financial markets really are in turmoil, I guess the good news is that we're not in a recession yet, or at least we have to whiz out our crystal balls to justify saying that we are.

As Daniel said the other day (and I can't say how delighted I am that he is back blogging - I mean, he could have given up on his life ambitions, given in, gone mad, explanations are plentiful and frightening when someone just goes quiet - that's not bearish of me to think so, is it? ) there are a few basic rules journalists do need to adhere to in today's market (which, despite all the doom and gloom, is a bull market for financial news), one of the most fundamental being keeping in mind the very definition of a recession.

Speaking of which, Charles Arthur's Ten signs you're in a recession is another recommended read which goes to show we're not quite there yet, it could be - and many will probably inject "will get" here - worse (If you check out that post, don't miss the comments, many of them superb).

Which, after 300 or so words, brings me back to the inspiration for writing this post, The Credit Crunch Song (via Loise Bolotin on twitter):

Downcast in Davos

With the recent market gloom, it's no surprise to hear that the mood in Davos was a bit sombre this year. But no, Adrian, I can't imagine that the modesty of Davos is a coincidence, after all it's Switzerland: remember Calvin? I hear his thoughts on frugality and capitalism has had quite a major impact on Swiss mentality ... in fact, it's not so dissimilar to what you find in Norway (at least with the older guard), or any country where protestantism has had a major foothold....


Picture by Jean-Bernard Sieber (via Sambrook)