Several social media sites have been full of speculation lately over the marital status of Norway’s Crown Prince Haakon and Crown Princess Mette-Marit, some of it written by journalists at Norwegian newspapers and websites that haven’t published any such reports of their own. When news site ABC Nyheter finally did broach the subject late last week, it set off a professional media debate over press ethics and whether rumours should be ignored.
Part of the debate concerned ABC Nyheter’s decision to publish what it claimed to be a newsworthy response to the rumours from the Royal Palace. It published a story based on the experience of Katrine Angelica Østlyng, a student and music journalist who called the palace herself to ask whether the rumours spreading via social media that the crown couple was separating were true.
“I woke up Wednesday to the rumours and thought, ‘this can’t be, we can’t have both a change of government and a (royal) divorce at the same time,'” Østlyng told ABC Nyheter. She decided to call the palace when she couldn’t find any news of a royal separation on established media sites, or on the official website for the palace itself.
Østlyng presented herself as “just a normal citizen” but she taped the conversation she had with the woman who took her call at the palace’s central switchboard.
“Don’t listen to that!” exclaimed the woman. “We are aware of the rumor and it’s just a rumour … you’re not the first person who has rung and asked about that. But it’s not true.” Østlyng then published a video clip of her conversation with the Royal Palace on YouTube and Facebook.
Østlyng also talked to ABC Nyheter, which decided it was worth a story because the woman at the palace said others had called as well. ABC Nyheter published a story headlined “Worried Norwegians call the palace about divorce rumours,” which its editor, Tor Strand, has since had to defend.
Strand denied the story gave credence to rumours, which surround the royals at all times. “As long as the rumours live their rabid life on Facebook and Twitter, ABC Nyheter didn’t bother to write about them,” Strand told journalisten.no, the website for the Norwegian national journalists’ union, which published a full story about the rumours without ever mentioning what the rumours were actually about.
“This story was about a rumour flood that went so far that worried citizens were calling the Palace to ask whether they were true,” said Strand. “And when a video then pops up on the world’s largest video website in which someone at the Palace rejects the rumours (of a royal split), then I think it’s a solid news story.”
The website for the British magazine Hello! also opted on Friday to publish a story about the “separation rumours” that it claimed “surrounded” Crown Prince Haakon and Crown Princess Mette-Marit. It cited a “growing distance” between the couple and “unconfirmed reports” that the Royal Palace itself would issue a statement on Friday concerning the couple’s relationship.
It didn’t and has flatly denied any official comment otherwise. “We don’t comment on rumours,” a palace spokesperson told Hello!, adding that “there will be no press release any sort.”
‘Media shouldn’t spread rumours’
Other Norwegian media, which have been criticized for being too servile in their coverage of the royals, chose to ignore the entire issue but professional debate took off over whether ABC Nyheter crossed a line. Kjersti Løken Stavrum, secretary general of the Norwegian press association (Norsk Presseforbund), maintained that the media shouldn’t spread rumours, which she claimed “defy that which is journalism: information based on facts and supported by open sources.”
ABC Nyheter was also challenged for publishing a story based on a secretly taped conversation. Palace spokeswoman Marianne Hagen did confirm that the woman who took Østlyng’s call at the palace wasn’t aware she was being taped. Strand noted, however, that she wasn’t identified.
He also criticized other professional journalists who have contributed to the rumour flow by writing about the crown couple’s marital status on their own open, personal Facebook sites. John Arne Markussen, editor in chief of newspaper Dagbladet, said he can’t get involved in what his journalists have written on their Twitter accounts. He wouldn’t answer why his newspaper, known for being among Norway’s high-profile tabloids, had chosen not to report itself on the royal rumours or the palace’s unwitting denial that the crown couple had separated, telling journalisten.no only that “we have ethical rules that we follow. You should rather ask Facebook and Twitter what they’re doing.”
One veteran royal reporter noted that rumours of separation and divorce have flown around royal couples for generations, at regular intervals. In the case of Norway’s crown couple, it’s true that they haven’t been seen together publicly since early October, but that’s when Mette-Marit went on sick leave because of severe neck pain. She underwent surgery for a herniated disc last month and has since been undergoing rehabilitation. All public appearances have been cancelled and Crown Prince Haakon has carried on their public duties by himself. He cancelled a planned visit to the US when his wife underwent surgery, reportedly to be by her side.