Leaders of Norway’s most conservative party, the Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, Frp), were trying to fend off crisis on Friday following the alleged sexual misconduct of one of their rising stars. It’s not so much his offenses, though, as how party leadership has handled them that’s causing concern.
New public opinion polls showed that voters are already dropping their support for the party, and political commentators were quick to suggest why. Party leader Siv Jensen finally admitted on Thursday afternoon, four days after her former trusted adviser Trond Birkeland was arrested on the charges of sexual misconduct, that top party leadership had been aware of allegations against him since 2009.
Instead of relieving him of responsibility for the party’s youth organization, and actively tackling the situation, Jensen and Geir Mo, secretary general of the Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, Frp) reportedly advised Birkeland to get a lawyer and offered little support to a minor he allegedly abused.
Jensen showed little remorse for her leadership’s failure to follow up on allegations that Birkeland had sex with an underage member of the party’s youth group. Mo has earlier said that organizations like Frp are constantly faced with rumors, and that party leaders don’t get involved in their members’ private affairs.
Jensen, trying to appear strong before a large group of reporters, also stressed that it was not up to the party to report the allegations of sexual misconduct or even assault to the police. Only the victim can do that, she said, receiving support for her position from a legal expert at the University of Oslo.
But Jensen, who also chose to lash out at the media for its reporting on the sensitive subject, soon caught criticism for appearing to be more concerned about protecting a party official than the interests of an underage boy who claims he was assaulted by Birkedal, widely viewed as a “crown prince” within the party. Perhaps party leaders including Jensen didn’t take the boy’s allegations seriously, but now Birkedal also is charged with having secretly filmed naked men in his bathroom, perhaps as many as six, so the sexual misconduct charges must be taken seriously now.
Communications experts told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Friday that Jensen should at least have shown more humility, given the nature of the charges facing her former fellow party leader. Her handling of the situation “can almost be characterized as a crisis in itself,” communications adviser Morten Helliesen told NRK.
Helliesen, who specializes in crisis management for companies, thinks Jensen and Mo have done most everything wrong, from first failing to admit to what they knew, to initially expressing shock and horror over the charges, to Jensen saying she was glad Birkedal had resigned his party posts. “That makes it seem like she hardly knew the man who was one of the party’s top candidates in one of its most important cities (Stavanger),” Helliesen said. Birkedal had been Frp’s candidate for mayor of Norway’s oil capital in the country’s upcoming municipal elections this fall.
Then Mo claimed the case was “between Birkedal and the police, and not a case for the party.” Helliesen thinks that also was a “hopeless” media strategy, because Birkedal’s actions very much involved the party organization. “To shirk responsibility like that is a real failure by the party,” Helliesen said.
Others agreed. “How a party handles a case like this can mean a lot for its reputation,” said Terje Eide, another communications adviser. Or, note others, its ability to govern. Eide wasn’t as critical as Helliesen, though, saying the party is in shock and mostly wants to exert damage control. He noted that the party also has had to show consideration for the people involved, both Birkedal and his alleged victims.