Political intrigue surrounds TV2 sale

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NEWS ANALYSIS: Norwegian media was all abuzz on Monday over the sale of one of their own major players, TV2, the country’s largest commercial TV station. The buyer is the Danish company that helped found TV2 and already owns half its shares, but that didn’t quell controversy. The sale, confirmed Monday morning after a weekend of speculation, has involved intrigue at the highest political levels.

It went through mostly as a business deal involving largely private interests, but it’s never without controversy in Norway when companies either privately or publicly owned are taken over by foreign interests. There are few if any complaints when Norwegian companies take over foreign firms, if anything that can seem to boost national pride. But there’s always noise when Norwegian companies fall into the hands of foreign owners.

Least-foreign foreigner
In this case, buyer Egmont of Denmark is about as least foreign as a foreign firm can be in Norway, given the two countries’ shared history, similar languages, related royal families and general fondness for one another. Egmont has also been heavily involved in TV2 from the start, and thus had an option to be first in line as a buyer of more shares. TV2’s own staffers have also seemed mostly satisfied with Egmont over the past 19 years, since TV2 started up in 1992, with one employee representative referring to Egmont as a supportive owner.

But Egmont is not Norwegian, and the country’s left-leaning government minister in charge of trade and industry, Trond Giske, made it clear over the weekend that he’s not happy with Egmont taking over the 50 percent of TV2 shares it didn’t already own from their seller, Norwegian media firm A-pressen.

In a move that reportedly startled not only A-pressen’s two major Norwegian owners, trade union confederation LO and telecoms firm Telenor, but also Giske’s Labour Party colleague and boss, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, Giske complained publicly in newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Saturday and also on Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Sunday. Giske claimed he hadn’t been informed about the pending sale and that A-pressen should find a Norwegian buyer for its shares in TV2.

‘Selling off the family silver’
Giske admitted he has no authority to block the sale, which is up to the boards of directors of the parties involved, but he likened it to “selling off the family silver” and claimed that national ownership is an important goal of the left-center government Stoltenberg leads. He claimed it’s simply his job to promote that goal.

Stoltenberg, though, had assured Telenor and LO that his government wouldn’t interfere with the deal or even have an opinion on it. What opens the deal to public scrutiny is that the state retains just over half the shares in Telenor, while LO is widely viewed as a Labour Party ally also keen on maintaining jobs in Norway, presumably through local control. LO has been a part of Labour’s, and Giske’s, power base and Giske represents the state as Telenor’s largest owner, so perhaps Giske felt he had some power himself to at least strongly suggest that they not support a sale of A-pressen’s stake in TV2 out of the country.

Instead, Giske has upset both LO leader Roar Flåthen and Telenor chairman Harald Norvik, a Labour-linked businessman who served as head of Statoil under Labour Party governments. Norvik told newspaper Aftenposten that Giske was informed of the deal: “We have regularly discussed Telenor’s desire to sell its stake in TV2,” Norvik told Aftenposten. He said he thinks Giske supported “another (sales) solution that wasn’t possible to realize.”

Different versions of reality
Giske also seems to have upset Stoltenberg, even though the two have earlier been at odds on various issues. Norvik confirmed that Stoltenberg himself called him Friday night, after hearing of the looming DN story with Giske’s criticism, to debunk Giske’s claims that the government opposed the sale to Egmont. The call from Stoltenberg, in which the prime minister assured Norvik that the government had no opinion on the sale and wouldn’t try to block it, was viewed as a reprimand of Giske and an attempt to put Giske in his place.

It didn’t seem to alter Giske’s agenda. Giske was still on national radio Monday morning, complaining about the sale to Egmont, while A-pressen’s employee representative also called it a “sad day” because the media company was losing one of its most important media channels.

A-pressen, LO and Egmont officials all defended the deal, with A-pressen saying it needed the money from the TV2 sale to buy back another Norwegian media group, Edda, from Mecom of the UK. That was also important, A-pressen claimed, to preserve local media jobs in Norway, and LO agreed. Egmont, meanwhile, promised to be a good owner for TV2 and the other publishing ventures it also acquires in the deal, valued at NOK 2.1 billion.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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