Norwegian politicians, business leaders, commentators, all kinds of special interest groups and the public at large were gathering again in the southern coastal city of Arendal this week, to debate issues before Parliament reopens this fall. The major event, called Arendalsuka, has distanced itself this year, though, from the controversial public relations (PR) firm First House, fearing any perceived ties to it would cast a shadow over its independence.
Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv reported last week that a key organizer of Arendalsuka, local county administrator Øystein Djupedal, decided to drop First House’s logo from its program and its website. The logo had adorned Arendalsuka’s promotional material since the public forum was launched in 2012, in compensation for voluntary work performed by First House partner Leif Monsen, who’s still listed as a member of Arendalsuka’s organizing committee.
Now there’s been a falling-out between Monsen, Djupedal and Stein Gauslaa, the editor of Arendal’s local newspaper Agderposten who also sits on the organizing committee. Djupedal and Gauslaa were increasingly concerned about what DN called “the shadow” that First House was casting over what they view as an “informal” political workshop of sorts, that brings politicians and citizens together. First House is known as a high-priced firm staffed by power brokers for hire, many of them former top politicians themselves. Several controversial cases of influence peddling by First House in recent years have left Djupedal and Gauslaa reluctant to be blatantly associated with the firm any longer.
Arendalsuka bills itself as “the most important meeting place” in Norway between leaders in politics and business, the media and ordinary residents of Arendal and other areas around the country. Inspired by the annual gathering of Swedish politicians and the public on the island of Gotland every summer, the organizers have tried to create an independent venue for a summertime forum themselves. Last year’s Arendalsuka played a major role in the national election campaign.
Now, for the third year in a row, all of Norway’s top politicians and government leaders are in Arendal to mingle with the masses. “Over half the government and at least half of the Parliament is coming in addition to many mayors, county administrators and everyone who can from national organizations of all types,” Djupedal told news bureau NTB on Monday. During the course of the week, they’ll take part in 230 debates and events, while more than 110 booths and exhibits are set up around town. All the events are free of charge and no organizations or political parties are allowed to solicit membership or sell any wares.
On the eve of the annual gathering, though, Djupedal, a former government minister himself, found himself in a public spat with fellow organizing committee member Monsen of First House, who protested the removal of First House’s logo in newspaper VG last weekend. Arendalsuka then issued a response that voluntary contributions (like those made by Monsen over the years) don’t give the contributors any rights.
Gauslaa told DN that repeated discussions over the connections between First House and Arendalsuka were raising concerns over Arendalsuka’s reputation. “It’s sad that there were suspicions that there were ulterior motives behind the choice of themes for Arendalsuka,” Gauslaa told DN. He claims there were none and are none, “but we didn’t want to be in a situation where there would be suspicions of ulterior motives.”
The seeds of Arendalsuka were first planted more than five years ago by Per Høiby, an older brother of Crown Princess Mette-Marit who later became leader of First House, and Kai Krüger Henriksen of construction firm Veidekke. They shared their idea with Gauslaa, Djupedal and Monsen, all living in Arendal. Both Høiby and Monsen were partners in First House by the time the first Arendalsuka was held three years ago, but First House itself wasn’t even formed when the project was first launched. “We couldn’t see then what the consequences (of the eventual links with an influence peddler like First House) would be,” Gauslaa told DN.
Both Monsen and Henriksen have objected to the removal of First House’s logo, and have demanded a clear explanation for it. DN noted how massive media coverage of First House as a behind-the-scenes political operator in cases involving everything from Norway’s relations with China to the make-up of the Norwegian Nobel Committee and investments made by the oil fund have made its involvement with Arendalsuka steadily difficult for what’s supposed to be an independent political festival. In some of the cases, politicians have claimed that First House poses “a democratic problem” by selling the services of former politicians who now advise clients on how to gain government favour for various projects or even circumvent Norwegian regulations, for example how to fight new climate rules that can exclude companies from the oil fund.
First House has repeatedly stressed that there is nothing illegal in its operations: “It is completely legitimate in a democracy that someone who is affected by a political decision can have an opportunity to speak their mind before the decision is taken,” Høiby told newspaper Aftenposten last spring. “What’s wrong with that?” Høiby and First House have since filed a formal press complaint against newspaper Aftenposten after it published a commentary suggesting that “Chinese interests” had hired First House to campaign against Thorbjørn Jagland’s reappointment as chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. First House denies that’s true.
Harald Danielsen, a top administrator for the city of Arendal, said that Djupedal’s decision to remove First House’s logo was made in an email to the program committee. Use of the logo, Djupedal argued, created “a lack of clarity” over First House’s role in Arendalsuka, according to Danielsen.
“Since it’s the city that runs the website for Arendalsuka, we took the logo off it for that reason,” Danielsen told DN. It remained absent from the website as Arendalsuka’s activities got underway.