Muzzling the media by Quentin Bates

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I was going to write something about the Leveson inquiry’s findings. In the wake of the scandals that the British media has been embroiled in over the last few years, the phone-hacking, the unforgivable treatment innocent people have been given at the hands of the newspapers and the too cozy for comfort relationship between the media, government figures and senior police officers, there’s plenty to get hot under the collar about.

One side of the government doesn’t want to put a muzzle on the media, possibly aware that there are many people who know where the metaphorical bodies are buried, while the other side and the opposition appear to be in favour of some legal leashes.

There’s no ideal solution. A muzzled media ceases to be a watchdog, but the unmuzzled British newspapers, or some of them, had gone off the scale in acting wildly irresponsibly. Things happened that were punishable by law, but which weren’t pursued when arguably they should have been, allowing the media to get away with yet more reprehensible behaviour.

I was going to write about the Leveson Inquiry, the one that within hours pundits appear to have read, digested and formed opinions on – but I won’t. Instead I’ll have a few words about Iceland’s newspapers, in many ways the polar opposite of the British media.

If the British media is a rottweiler, then the Icelandic media, by and large, is a poodle. A fairly old, biddable and obedient poodle. On top of that, Iceland has a lot of media – several daily newspapers, dozens of local papers and magazines, plus radio and TV – all for a third of a million people, equivalent to the population of a smallish mainland city.

To be fair, journalists in Iceland are awkwardly placed in a tiny community. Upset someone, especially someone prominent in business or politics, and you can be fairly sure that the someone in question has a pal who can be persuaded to drop the errant journalist into the effluent from a great height. There are a few courageous journos who refuse to toe the line, but in general everyone wants to stay in a job and it’s easy enough to get blackballed.

Iceland’s media, like its British counterpart, has its own links to business and politics. Morgunblaðið, the country’s century-old main daily newspaper, has always leaned to the right as the organ of the establishment and the conservative Independence Party. In spite of that, it had generally been able to do its own thing, leaning the way it does through its own right-leaning convictions. Mogginn, as it’s known, leaned that way because like any newspaper, it reflected the prejudices, fears and preconceptions of its readership. Challenging your readership isn’t generally too smart move.

But in the years after the Crash, the practically bankrupt Morgunblaðið came into the ownership of a coterie of deeply conservative business people and much changed. The editor, a respected figure who didn’t agree with his proprietors on everything but had been given rein by them to do so, was unceremoniously replaced with Davíð Oddsson, former Prime Minister and ex-head of the Central Bank, in a move that cost the paper many readers as well as much of its credibility.

So the anti-EU, anti-reform Morgunblaðið isn’t exactly a reliable source of unbiased reporting these days, a sad situation for what was once a decent enough newspaper. In fact, it’s deeply saddening that a newspaper that had been respected if not always liked, and with a solid history going back a century, has become a shadow of its old self since the lunacy of the ‘growth years’ brought it to its knees.

Much of the rest of the print media is likewise tainted by links to business or politics. Vísir and its freebie offshoot, Fréttablaðið (which simply means ‘newspaper’) are owned by one of Iceland’s less than popular financial Viking Raiders, so there’s something of an agenda there as well although the proprietors don’t appear to interfere quite so much with the running of their papers.

Then there’s DV, which is largely independent but beset by difficulties, some of which lie with its distance from the establishment that ensures problems in sourcing advertising and sales. Business newspaper Vidskiptablaðið is solidly behind Iceland’s big business, although between the interviews with grey men in their grey suits there are nuggets of good stuff. Apart from those, there’s the Grapevine, Reykjavík’s English-language freesheet that doesn’t parrot the establishment line, but it’s artier and while critical, it’s less forthrightly political than it used to be.

As well as the print media, there’s a radio and television, including RÚV, the state-run TV and radio that’s probably about as close to it’s possible to get to impartial news, although there’s an inherent caution to everything about the state broadcaster. But RÚV is a victim of the government’s slashing economy drive, and it shows.

There is no iconoclast on the lines of Britain’s Private Eye gleefully lambasting the powerful and the pompous, although the aftermath of the Crash has spawned a much-needed spirit of satire that had been badly lacking. This has appeared in a few places online, while cartoonists such as Halldór and Henry Thór have been admirably lampooning worthy targets in print.

Beyond print there are dozens of websites, blogs, Facebook pages and suchlike, and this is where much opinion is formed, largely beyond the grasp of vested interests or political clout but still not immune to coercion, influence or even outright bullying tactics.

Sadly, Iceland’s media was given an unflattering mention in the State Prosecutor’s exhaustive dossier that detailed much of the background to the Crash, citing the close relationship between business, politics and the media, notably the media’s failure to ask the questions it should have, as one of the reasons for the whole thing being allowed to happen.

The moral of the story? However scurrilous or underhand they can be, newspapers need to be free to ask the awkward questions that someone who ought to have a guilty conscience doesn’t want to answer.

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Quentin Bates

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