You cannot just have it your way

Photo from limitstogrowth.com

Photo from limitstogrowth.com

It has been very interesting to follow the story of the editor in chief of the daily newspaper DV.

Reynir Traustason asked his reporter, Jon Bjarki Magnusson to do a story about Sigurjon Arnason, former CEO of Landsbankinn. Sigurjon who is one of the arcitects behidn IceSave and the collapse of the Icelandic economy had lost his position with the nationalization of Landsbanki but had started up a business whose offices were in…Landsbankinn and had a website designed by … Landsbankinn. Questions were being asked about his presence and DV wanted the answers.

But after turning in the story, expecting to see it in next days paper, Reynir told him that it would not run. Powerful forces in the community did not want it to run and they would ruin the paper if it went with the story.

Jon Bjarki struggled with this for a month, then resigned at DV last weekend and went public with what had happened. Reynir and his son and co-editor Jon Trausti Reynisson refuted the claims and painted Joh Bjarki in an unfavorable light. But the young reporter had an ace up his sleeve, a recording made of the conversation where Reynir tells him why the story won’t run. And it is not pretty for the editor.

He names names, although stopping short of linking them absolutely to the threats. He names Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson, who has been known to edit a story or two, Sigurjon himself and Hreinn Loftsson, one of Baugur’s inner circle for the past years who is now the owner of the publishing house of DV. He claims the paper will be ruined by these “powers” in the community, tells Jon Bjarki that he is one of his best reporters and that he cannot run with the story.

Unfortunately for DV, todays editorial was sent to the printers before the recording was made public last night. A reporter resigned immediately from DV, one of their top people. Others waited all day to hear what the editors would do. Jon Trausti was in an interesting position because a few weeks ago he wrote an editorial where he apologized on the behalf of DV and the media for failing to report appropriately on the people mostly responsible for the crash.

And now it has emerged that they are going to stay in their positions. They consider themselves to have full support from the owners and will therefore remain as editors-in chief.

And this is a big problem. The media, including DV has been pushing politicians about whether they shouldn’t resign because of the economic disaster. The media, including DV has mocked those politicians who don’t resign because they consider themselves to have the full backing of their party.

You just cannot have it your way. By staying in their positions, the editors-in chief of DV are becoming a big part of the huge problem in Icelandic society where noone accepts responsibility for anything, not even grievous mistakes that undermine their profession, or in the case of the politicians’ their country.

They have given the corrupt politicans their seal of approval.

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On a personal note I stopped believing in the concept of “freedom of press” when I was a young journalist working with school. An old man came and told me he had given a member of parliament a thing that had belonged to his father, a sailor to put it in a maritime museum. He had been surprised to see the thing hanging in the living room of the same MP when he was showing off his house on TV a year later. I asked my editor whether we should follow the story and he said no. If he had run it he would be compromising his relationship with the biggest advertisers in the area. The MP was accused and found guilty of embezzlement a few years later.

Every media that is a business and dependent on advertising revenue must think twice before biting the hand that feeds it. That is the hard truth. You know that Agnes Bragadottir of Morgunbladid will see things through Independent Party glasses. You know that Bjorn Ingi Hrafnsson of Frettabladid tried to save FL Group with public money a year ago as a politician and is now business editor at Jon Asgeir Johannesson’s paper. There is no real analyzis to be had while one of the main conspirators is sitting in the chair that should send reporters out to investigate. Instead we get two pages of “shadow-economic councils” where he gets to go have lunch with some powerful people.

You read their stories with that in mind. The “truth” that journalists keep talking about as the holy beacon of their profession is somewhere in between. Everyone knows that if Jon Asgeir, who owns a sizeable chunk of retail and several large businesses in Iceland owns a media company then advertising will be directed towards that company.

I, the infidel myself was the editor in chief of a school newspaper at a Catholic university in the United States for two and a half years. Was that a free press? No. Was I censored? No. Did I keep the paper’s owner’s interests in mind? Yes. Any editor in chief who claims he is totally free is not reading his situation correctly.

The freedom of the press is limited by its owners. So it is foolish to pretend otherwise. Just state your intent clearly and allow people to make up their own minds whether they trust you or not.

I will bet that every journalist who’s lasted a while  in the profession in Iceland has faced these kinds of dilemmas. And I will bet that 99% of us have chosen job safety and a paycheck over the story. Hats off for Jon Bjarki who is going to have a hell of a time trying to find another job because he didn’t.

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1 Response to “You cannot just have it your way”


  1. 1 kkjartansson December 17, 2008 at 1:07 pm

    That MP wouldn’t happen to be a certain MP from Vestmannaeyjar? And the editor in question wouldn’t happen to be a certain ex-MP who recently resigned over his inability to use email?


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