The embattled communications chief at Norway’s Royal Palace finally responded Thursday night to harsh public criticism over the royal family’s lack of openness. Marianne Hagen still failed, however, to answer the key questions at hand.
The questions have been swirling since Crown Prince Haakon and Crown Princess Mette-Marit took a yacht holiday this summer that was wildly expensive in more ways than one. Some critics have gone so far as to say it may cost them the monarchy. Their refusal to say who paid for their trip caused even traditional supporters of the monarchy to claim that the young royals were “old-fashioned” in refusing to reveal who granted them holiday favours, to the tune of EUR 250,000 a week plus expenses.
That’s the published leasing rate (external link) for a week on board the yacht Mia Elise, with its staterooms for 12 plus a crew of nine “to ensure a relaxed luxury yacht experience.” The yacht has also been portrayed in Norwegian media as a fuel-guzzling, carbon emissions-generating vessel that didn’t seem to jibe with the royals’ often purported concern for the environment. The timing of their luxury cruise in the Mediterranean, while thousands of refugees were risking their lives to cross it on rubber rafts, also raised eyebrows.
Claiming a right of refusal
The main criticism, however, has been over the royals’ refusal to say who invited them on the yacht. All other Norwegian public officials are required by law to disclose and register such lavish gifts because of concerns over influence peddling, and the mayor of Bergen is currently charged with corruption for failing to do so, but the royals clearly place themselves above such requirements and don’t see any need to reveal their benefactors.
Nor did palace communications chief Marianne Hagen, who was labelled as the “anti-communications chief” in various Norwegian media. She didn’t budge even when both Prime Minister Erna Solberg of the Conservative Party and Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre, head of the opposition in Parliament, failed to come to the royals’ rescue. Solberg said it was up to the royals themselves to decide how to respond, and then take the consequences.
Meanwhile, Norway’s national press federation (Norges Presseforbund) has asked the Justice Ministry to evaluate whether the royals should also be bound by the state’s disclosure laws. As newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) noted on Friday, the Parliament allocated NOK 228 million to the royal family, their staff and properties this year, and the summer yacht cruise renewed questions about the lack of insight into royal finances. “We should have the possibility to examine the use of the (taxpayers’) money and how the royal family sets its priorities regarding public appearances, travel and engagements,” DN editorialized. “Subjecting the Royal Palace to the state disclosure laws would be a step towards phasing out the monarchy,” DN added, since it would remove part of what makes it different. “That would be a good development.”
Royal attempt to explain the palace’s position
On Thursday night, Hagen suddenly published an item on the royals’ own publicly financed website, kongehuset.no, headlined “On relations to the media.” The article’s introduction noted that the Palace’s relations to the press had been “much discussed” in the media, and that Hagen would explain the Palace’s standpoint.
“We put great emphasis on openness,” she began. “To say that we always answer ‘no comment” and that we aren’t open, is simply not correct.” She conceded, though, that “also we have potential for improvement, and we are trying all the time to develop.”
She then reported on how the palace’s communications’ staff receives many questions from Norwegian and international media, and tries to answer them all. The royals themselves also often answer questions, she wrote, when they are out and about among the public “several times a week.”
Neither the royals nor their communications staff, however, will answer questions related to the ongoing debate over whether Norway should have a monarchy or questions related to other constitutional issues. Nor will they answer questions they claim are tied to their private lives. “The royals also need a room that’s only theirs,” Hagen wrote. She said exceptions are made, such as when the press wanted to cover Princess Ingrid Alexandra’s first day at the expensive private school she now attends, after her parents sparked controversy by taking her out of the local public school.
Hagen avoided addressing the yacht cruise, though, and the concerns it raised about influence peddling. The closest she came was to write that “the royals have friends they visit and who visit them. It’s allowed to have friends.” She said the palace receives many questions about “private guest lists and holidays. As a rule we don’t inform about that because it has to do with their private lives.” She won’t respond to questions about the royals’ clothing, shoes or accessories either, or about who has supplied expensive designer items, and she wrote merely that gifts “can be difficult. All gifts must be handled so that the royals won’t be bound to anyone.”
Carl-Erik Grimstad, a former palace official himself, told state broadcaster NRK that he thinks Hagen’s response shows that the Palace is under pressure. “Both the prime minister and opposition leader have expressed criticism that they (the royals) accept these perquisites,” Grismstad said. “I don’t think the Palace understands the power of the recent criticism.”
Trond Blindheim, a local marketing and media expert, said he doesn’t think it’s any coincidence that Hagen published her statement now.”The palace knows this is controversial and has a need to hoist their flag about where they stand,” he told NRK. “I would think there’s been internal discussion within the royal house, and consultations with political friends before this was published.”
Grimstad agreed the palace has become more communicative than when he worked there 20 years ago. “But its exemption from the state law on openness isn’t mentioned with a word, and it’s not a private thing when the royals receive millions worth of gifts,” he said. “It raises questions over whether there are any attachments, which can weaken the royals’ integrity.” Those questions remain unanswered.