Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Spin Spin Sugar

You may have noticed that there's been a bit of an e-mail malfunction in the Icelandic government. As the Grapevine reported, Political Adviser to the Minister of Education and Cultural Affairs Elías Jón Guðjónsson accidentally sent an e-mail to an American journalist instead of to its intended recipient, which is speculated to be Minister of Finance and Leftist-Green chairman Steingrímur J. Sigfússon. This e-mail, in turn, was forwarded to Haukur, our editor.

Now, this has been one of the top stories of Vísir all day. The e-mail itself isn't particularly shocking, as Haukur points out. It's a political operative telling his bosses that he intends to hand a scoop to a journalist they know, in the hopes that the government can guide the discussion about the Magma Energy matter. There is absolutely nothing surprising about this, and you'd have to be pretty naive to think politicians don't plan on how to guide public discussion over an issue.

This leak isn't an indictment on the government, in other words. It's a little behind-the-scenes look at how politicians try to take part in public discourse. It is, however, an indictment on the media in this country.

Notice in the e-mail that Elías refers to a certain "Doddi", a journalist who's looking for a scoop. The fact is, every single political party in Iceland has contacts in every media outlet who are journalists sympathetic to their platform. Each party has "their guy" at Fréttablaðið, Rás 1, RÚV and so forth. They conveniently drop scoops in their laps in order to get the jump on other parties, or to get an advantageous position over an issue, sending press releases that their contacts happily copy/paste without the slightest examination of the facts in these communiques.

I should tell you, in the interests of full disclosure, that I know Elías. I like the guy. If he's guilty of anything in this, it's being not good with computers.

The e-mail is a blessing, in a way, as now you - if you didn't already know - can see how politicians have a very close relationship with journalists. I don't know who Doddi is or if he's in the Leftist-Greens, but journalists on a nickname-basis with politicians are often sympathetic to their platform. What's wrong with this is it invites the blatant and unexamined conveyance of party spin under cover of news. Politicians telling their side to journalists - fine. Journalists repeating what they were told, word for word, without digging a little deeper - not so fine.

The Magma Energy issue is one the Grapevine has been diligently reporting on. I think it's pretty obvious to everyone that we're rooting for the ruling coalition here, in the sense that they want to stop the deal, and we want it stopped. If you take anything away from this e-mail, let it be that whenever you see, hear or read a great scoop from a journalist concerning what this or that party says or plans to do, take it with a grain of salt. And read other sources.