‘Love us or hate us for the right reasons’

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NEWS ANALYSIS: After being provocative and in opposition for 40 years, Norway’s Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, Frp) is suddenly worried about its image both at home and abroad. It thus called a press conference on Tuesday to clarify its positions and explain itself, but the entire session also reflected just how concerned other Norwegians are, especially the local media, over how the rest of the world views them.

PHOTO: Reporters packed a press conference on Tuesday with Ketil Solvik-Olsen (left), deputy leader of the Progress Party, and Himanshu Gulati, leader of the party's youth group, who wanted to put their party's image "in the right perspective." Both are upset that media abroad have called their party "far-right" and with links to ultra-right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik. PHOTO: newsinenglnsh.no/Nina Berglund

PHOTO: Reporters packed a press conference on Tuesday with Ketil Solvik-Olsen (left), deputy leader of the Progress Party, and Himanshu Gulati, leader of the party’s youth group, who wanted to put their party’s image “in the right perspective.” Both are upset that media abroad have called their party “far-right” and with links to ultra-right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund

It was a curious session indeed, rooted in the reaction to last week’s flurry of international press coverage that linked the Progress Party (Frp) to ultra-right wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik. The coverage, widely viewed as misleading and uninformed, set off alarms not just within the party but also among its potential government partners, officials at the Norwegian Parliament and in the Foreign Ministry, and, clearly, the media. Few agree that a “far right-wing” or “extremist” or “xenophobic” party is about to help form a non-socialist government in Norway, as has been written in newspapers from the UK to Italy and the US.

The party clearly thought it was time to try to set the record straight. The goal, according to deputy party leader Ketil Solvik-Olsen, was to put the Progress Party “in the right perspective,” and he talked warmly of how the party was initially formed in 1973 as a protest party of sorts that advocated lower taxes, smaller government, fewer rules and regulations and more liberal market policies. That hasn’t changed, said Solvik-Olsen, who’s widely tipped to become a minister himself in a new right-center government, He added that he joined the party in 1987, not least because he had parents who were business owners and he saw how they struggled with high costs, high taxes and bureaucracy in Norway.

The Progress Party's press conference was packed, but Norwegian press far outnumbered the foreign press that the party was trying to reach. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund

The Progress Party’s press conference was packed, but Norwegian press far outnumbered the foreign press that the party was trying to reach. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund

Somewhere along the line, immigration became an issue that the party now “owns,” according to Professor Frank Aarebrot, an acclaimed analyst of political parties in Norway. Aarebrot is a committed social democrat himself but he appeared at the press conference and spoke because he said he was “shocked” over what he saw as biased foreign coverage of the party. Solvik-Olsen and the leader of the Progress Party’s youth group, Himanshu Gulati, insist the party is not “anti-immigration.” Rather, according to Solvik-Olsen, “we want to take in our share of asylum seekers” and the party “never has been and never will be anti-immigration.” Instead, he claims, the party simply wants to “better control” immigration and improve integration.

“The international media seems to have a hang-up that we’re anti-immigration,” said Solvik-Olsen, while leading up to the fact that Breivik was indeed once a member of the party but left in 2006 because “we were way too liberal” for him. Solvik-Olsen claims he has no recollection of Breivik at all, and that “he made no marks on the party.” Breivik, he claimed, “found no soil for his ideas to grow, he was disgusted with us.”

Solvik-Olsen said it thus was “disheartening to us” to suddenly see Breivik’s photo next to party leader Siv Jensen’s on the front page of some major newspapers in Europe, not least The Independent in the UK, and to be branded as “anti-immigration.” The main issues in the election campaign centered on entirely other areas, he noted, like improving infrastructure, the pros and cons of oil exploration and use of oil revenue.

Professor Frank Aarebrot from the University of Bergen stressed that he has little in common with the Progress Party but shares their distress over how they've been portrayed in foreign media. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund

Professor Frank Aarebrot from the University of Bergen stressed that he has little in common with the Progress Party but shares their distress over how they’ve been portrayed in foreign media. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund

Aarebrot said “can’t think of anyone who didn’t react” negatively to the photos. Aarebrot was careful to note how much he personally disagrees with the Progress Party’s politics, but nonetheless called the vast majority of the foreign coverage “unfair, incorrect and heavily biased.” According to the professional publication and website Journalisten, the old link between the party and Breivik was mentioned in more than 1,100 articles last week alone. That could also simply be a sign of how quickly and pervasively media outlets pick up on one another’s content in the Internet age.

As Solvik-Olsen went on to describe the party as “perhaps more libertarian” than anything else, and that it identifies itself with other liberal and conservative parties in Europe (and not with the far-right and clearly anti-immigration parties in Sweden or France), it remains uncertain whether his message will be heard by media abroad. The problem was that the foreign correspondents at Tuesday’s press conference were far outnumbered by Norwegian reporters who also were concerned with how Norway is viewed abroad. Few if any of the foreign reporters who “shocked” party officials with their stories that linked the party to Breivik turned up. They either traveled back home long ago or never were actually in Norway.

Aarebrot thinks much of the international press coverage was also “damaging,” not only to the party but to Norway as well. Asked whether the party can itself be blamed for the coverage given some of its provocative rhetoric over the years, Solvik-Olsen said “no,” because “some instances were taken out of context.” He contends the party is not labelled as “right-wing extremist” in Norway, but conceded it was “a bad idea” for the party to once claim that Islam was “sneaking” into Norwegian society. “We haven’t used that term for awhile,” he said.

So why is the party suddenly so concerned about its image? “There’s a good chance we’re going to get the Oil & Energy and Finance ministries” as a result of government negotiations, Solvik-Olsen said. “We don’t want to be (wrongly) seen as right-wing extremists when we go visiting in other countries.” The party continues to evolve from its early protest roots to being more moderate and mainstream. It wants to be taken seriously.

“You can love or hate us, but do it for the right reasons,” Solvik-Olsen said.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund