Foreigners just don’t ‘get’ Norway
July 28, 2011
NEWS ANALYSIS: Sympathy for Norwegians who have lived through a violent nightmare in recent days has streamed in from around the world, but so has criticism of Norway in foreign media. As Norwegians tried to return to some form of normalcy nearly a week after two terrorist attacks, many were puzzled by the foreign journalists’ criticism and felt they’d once again been misunderstood.
Reporters suddenly flown into Oslo, with little if any background on the country and its people, simply had a hard time understanding how the police function here, for example, or how people think, and that’s led to lots of head-shaking among the locals over reports they sent home. If anything, the experience and misunderstandings of the past week confirm a widespread belief about this small country in the far north:
It’s different up here. And the difference can lead to the criticism that’s often based on how non-Norwegians think it should be up here.
That means, literally, “the different country,” a term bandied about often after Norwegians voted for the second time against joining the European Union in 1994. They wanted to go their own way.
Norway has for decades been built up as an open, transparent, informal society with strong egalitarian principles and a regulated social welfare system based on what the Norwegians love to call fellesskap (fellowship). This is a country where the prime minister bicycles to work, where approachable politicians walk freely around town and where the chief executive of the country’s biggest bank can be spotted doing his family’s grocery shopping, all alone, in short-sleeves.
This is a country where it’s not at all unusual to hear its citizens say that they “pay their taxes with joy,” because they’re keen to spread the wealth and know that they can get a lot back in return, from free university tuition to total coverage of all hospitalization costs.
This is also a country that voted twice against joining the European Union but is an active supporter of the United Nations, and which celebrates its national day with an utter lack of military display even though it’s a member of NATO. Instead of having tanks or soldiers parade on the 17th of May, children fill the streets along with adults in colorful Norwegian costumes.
The police are unarmed, there is no death penalty, the penal system is based on rehabilitation of criminals instead of punishment and the maximum prison term is generally 21 years, with eligibility for parole in about half that time. This often shocks foreigners who view Norway as far too lenient, or even naive.
“I believe that the majority of the foreign journalists (sent to Norway to cover Friday’s terrorist attacks and their aftermath) had minimal knowledge of Norwegian society and culture,” Rune Ottosen, a professor of journalism at the local college Høyskolen i Oslo, told newspaper Dagsavisen on Thursday. And he says it’s a common problem within what he calls fallskjermjournalistikk, when journalists “parachute” into a spot where news is breaking and suddenly have to act like they’re experts on the place.
That’s what’s sparking the media criticism in return from Norwegians. They were surprised to hear on a major American network, for example, that “it doesn’t seem like you have very good police in Norway,” or comments from a South American correspondent for newspapers in Argentina and Colombia that security was “poor.” He was surprised there were no metal detectors at the courthouse, and that his bags weren’t searched.
Other Norwegians have been amazed, even angered, by the errors made in haste as events were unfolding that weren’t corrected later. In the rush to satisfy demanding editors or producers back home, it was easy to jump to conclusions like the widespread suspicion that Islamic terrorists were behind the attacks on Norway’s government complex and a Labour Party youth group. Ottosen noted that Fox News in the US kept debating the danger of Islamic fundamentalists long after the blond Christian Norwegian had been arrested and confessed to the attacks. Other media focused on immigration issues in Norway, the absence of a death penalty and even the rising popularity of Scandinavian crime novels.
Little criticism within Norway
Some foreign media portrayed Norway as naive, or downright odd. Why weren’t people more angry, full of fight or seeking revenge? That might have been the normal reaction in their home countries, but not in Norway.
Nor has there been much if any local criticism of the police actions, the emergency response or the handling of the crisis by Norwegian politicians within Norway. Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg can claim a 94 percent approval rating of his leadership during the past five days and the police have enjoyed praise as well. Far from being defensive, as some foreign media reported, police officials have questioned the foundation for the criticism and apologized publicly for some technical communications problems and failure to respond more quickly to the first calls of shooting on the island of Utøya. It took nearly an hour for the Oslo special forces to arrive on the island after getting their first call. They then arrested the gunman within two minutes.
Stoltenberg has set up a special commission to examine all aspects of the attacks, to learn from them and study “what worked and what didn’t.” He’s quick to say it’s not an investigation or inquiry, and he has full non-partisan support for the commission in Parliament. There’s been no criticism voiced by the opposition in Norway, which usually is quick to pounce on the government otherwise.
Meanwhile, Norwegians were getting back to work. Businesses and stores that briefly closed after the attacks have reopened, the streets have been cleaned and even the sun has re-appeared after five days of heavy rain and gloomy skies. The Norwegians’ lack of visible anger or noisy emotion illustrates their customary restraint, which also could be seen on a small post-it note mounted on the shattered glass entrance of a publishing company two blocks from the blast site: “Please use the other door.”
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