As Norway’s Labour Party examines reasons for its terrible election results last week, one of its former leaders and Norwegian prime ministers came up with a reason of his own. Thorbjørn Jagland, now secretary general of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, blamed the Norwegian media, and ended up getting blasted in Norway himself.
Jagland was upset that newspapers Dagbladet, VG and Dagens Næringsliv (DN) published stories in the final weeks of the election campaign about questionable private investments held by Jonas Gahr Støre, Labour’s leader and defeated prime minister candidate. The newspapers reported how Støre had invested in a housing development that defied Labour’s preferred employment practices, and how he’d invested in a hedge fund that had holdings in a company that produces components for nuclear weapons, which Labour opposes.
Støre, who has inherited wealth, had trouble explaining how he’d managed his investments, initially refused to identify the funds where he placed his family’s money. Then he sold off those that were being questioned. There also were reports that Støre had received free legal advice and assistance in selling off part of his investments from his good friend and high-profile lawyer Knut Brundtland, son of former Labour Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. Støre had also been criticized for being involved in tax-free “favours between friends” regarding the renovation of the boat pier at his summer home. Labour Party officials, meanwhile, were reportedly unaware of Støre’s investments and alleged receipt of favours from friends, and had no strategy for handling what could amount to conflicts of interest.
Things got worse for Støre because of his bungled response to the revelations about his personal fortunes and, not least, when he hired another lawyer who formerly worked as a government attorney to try to stop Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) from running a story about his private financial matters. That also received negative press coverage.
Even though it’s the media’s job to expose such potential conflicts of interest, Jagland criticized the media on Facebook and went further. As newspaper Aftenposten editorialized on Saturday, Jagland “more than suggested” that the newspapers had sat on the information and saved it for publication close to the election. Jagland called that “a democratic problem.”
The media outlets involved deny the charge while Aftenposten accused Jagland of resorting to “conspiracy theories,” claiming that’s a much bigger democratic problem. “The secretary general of the Council of Europe should avoid that type of intimation, unless it can be based on concrete examples,” Aftenposten wrote.
Jagland may have been excused from such a folly “if he’d been writing privately and came with such claims late at night,” the paper continued, “but he wrote during work hours and dragged his attack on Norwegian media into his work as secretary general of the Council of Europe.”
Jagland himself acknowledged that attacks on freedom of the press by government authorities is a major concern, but added that “fake news” and alleged slanted reports were also a worry. Norwegian media fired back, noting that Jagland’s unsubstantiated allegations against the media were especially alarming since they come at a time when freedom of the press is under real threat in Turkey, Poland, Russia and other countries that are members of the Council of Europe.
“Støre was naive about his private economy before the election, and when criticism arose, he tackled it poorly,” Aftenposten editorialized over the weekend. “Luckily the Labour Party leadership itself has a better understanding that this was not the main reason for the election defeat.”
The newspaper, Norway’s largest, suggested that Jagland “must have short-circuited.” As secretary general of an organization that among other things must defend freedom of the press, Aftenposten claimed Jagland “should base criticism on realities, not unconnected impressions.”