UPDATED: Politicians and labour officials were reeling once again on Friday over a new video showing the Labour Party’s embattled former deputy leader Trond Giske out dancing with a young woman late at night last weekend. It was the proverbial last straw for Giske, who finally gave up part of his political comeback attempt and then was stripped of the rest: Labour’s election committee for its chapter in Giske’s home district of Trøndelag voted unanimously Friday afternoon that Giske won’t be nominated to any top positions in Trøndelag Arbeiderparti after all.
The video was making the rounds of social media amidst heated debate over Giske’s comeback effort following multiple sexual harassment charges against him last year. It was also circulating just after the leader of the Labour Party’s largest local chapter in Oslo had claimed Giske should “with bowed head, leave the party in shame and never seek the public spotlight again.”
He didn’t do that, but he did withdraw his highly controversial candidacy for election to a Labour Party commission, which could have made it possible for him to also win a seat on the party’s national board. Election committee members in Trøndelag still supported Giske and had nominated him, but even they had second thoughts Friday after his late-night dancing and photo-taking at a popular bar in Oslo last Saturday night. Jorodd Asphjell, leader of the election committee, was at the bar with Giske and told reporters Friday that he had questioned whether it was wise for Giske to pose for photos with other partying bar guests.
The video of Giske dancing around 2am with his hands on a young woman ignited another blaze of criticism of both Giske and the Labour Party, with party leaders initially refusing to comment on their party colleague’s behaviour. Newspaper VG reported Thursday evening that the video was sent to Labour Party Secretary Kjersti Stenseng along with a statement of concern by Knut Sandli, deputy leader of a labour union representing health care personnel. Stenseng would only confirm receipt of the video to VG.
‘More noise and conflict’
The video was briskly shared on social media Thursday, just a day after Giske stirred new controversy by being nominated for (and accepting) the new position of trust in Labour’s Trøndelag chapter. Many both inside and outside the Labour Party didn’t think Giske was worthy of the commission post. The ongoing controversy around Giske has been splitting Labour, Norway’s largest political party, right when it needs to concentrate on politics heading into this year’s municipal elections instead of being distracted once again by Giske and the internal conflict around him.
He ended up withdrawing from the commission post upon learning that he wouldn’t have unanimous support. “That would lead to more noise and conflict right up to the (chapter’s) annual meeting (next weekend),” Giske wrote on his Facebook page Friday afternoon. He admitted that it was important to shift public attention to Labour’s politics and candidates in upcoming municipal elections, and away from the conflict around him.
He claimed he was retaining his seat on the board of Labour’s Trøndelag chapter, however, along with a post as leader of its organizational commission, and wrote that he now hopes he can remain involved in Labour politics “for a better Trøndelag.” Giske ended up being stripped of the other two posts, after the chapter’s election committee voted Giske out of commission and the county board for the party.
“It’s all about his judgment,” Asphjell told NRK. He also stressed that the election committee couldn’t let Giske overshadow the politics that will be developed in the county chapter.
The video was expected to haunt him, along with his decision to have a night on the town with party fellows in the middle of controversy over his character following the sexual harassment complaints against him. “I think (Giske’s behaviour in the video) is very inappropriate,” Sandli, who complained about it to the highest levels of the Labour Party, told both VG and state broadcaster NRK. “Trond Giske (who remains a Member of Parliament because he can’t be fired from that elected post) is an elected official, and he should be that at all times. He’s clearly not.”
Others reacted because Giske, who recently had a child with his live-in partner who has supported him, had apologized last year for having harassed and offended several women in incidents stretching back more than a decade. He also indicated he would change his ways, prompting both the local election committee in Trøndelag and the party’s youth organization in the region to call emergency meetings Friday morning to discuss their support for Giske once again.
Norwegian media reaction was also torrential, with one NRK program leader early Friday morning wondering on the air whether Giske “hadn’t learned anything” from the past year of turmoil around him. Giske himself, along with the young woman in the video, were trying to downplay the entire late-night incident in Oslo’s popular Bar Vulkan last weekend, with the woman telling NRK Friday morning that the video showing Giske with his hands on her “looks worse than it was.” She claimed they merely had “a nice dance” and that he left the bar before she did.
Giske’s defense targets VG
Giske himself thanked the young woman on behalf of himself “and my family” for relating her version of events. It conflicts directly, however, with her earlier version on Thursday, that the situation was “uncomfortable” and that she and a friend left the bar first.
Giske wouldn’t answer questions from media but posted a lengthy statement on social media Friday morning in which he wrote that he thinks VG should apologize for its coverage of the bar incident and the video. He claims he’d simply had dinner Saturday night at the home of “a colleague” and that they later went out to what he described as the “neighbourhood pub,” where they stood together and talked.
“There was constant pressure (from others at the bar) to take pictures and selfies, men and women who wanted a picture or video of me together with them or friends,” Giske wrote. “Normally that would not be a problem, but given the situation as it is now (with all the criticism of him and his election to a new position of political trust) I shouldn’t have agreed to it.”
He went on to admit that it “would have been wisest not to be there at all,” before he attacked VG for its “unreasonable” coverage. He also downplayed the statement of concern sent to Party Secretary Stenseng by the Oslo labour union official, claiming the man sent it without the permission of the young woman in the video and without having been at the scene himself.
“VG reports his view of how terrible my behaviour was, in a presentation completely at odds with reality,” Giske wrote.
Giske concluded by writing that he “respects various opinions about whether I should be elected to new positions of trust, but even given the huge pressure on me right now, there must be some limits on press ethics.” He repeated that VG should apologize.
Editor stands by the report
VG‘s editor-in-chief, Gard Steiro, defended VG‘s coverage, however, denying that VG had tried to portray the incident as something other than what it was. He noted how the labour union leader (Sandli) had reacted with concern about seeing Giske out on the town again, and that the video was spreading on the Internet and among Norwegian politicians.
“VG evaluated the situation as being of public interest, when there’s also a debate over confidence in (Labour’s) former deputy leader,” Steiro wrote in VG on Friday. He added that Sandli reacted to Giske’s judgment, given the sexual harassment complaints filed against him last year.
Linda Bjørgan, a political commentator for NRK, predicted this latest incident involving Giske would harm him, “especially considering how he not long ago stood as the regretful sinner and said he should reflect more on how he’s behaved in social situations over the years, especially around women and alcohol.” Giske’s decision to cavort in a bar late at night, Bjørgan noted, gave Giske’s opponents more ammunition when “many are searching for a way to take him down at the moment.”
Giske “should find something else to do’
Giske has arguably become more of a liability than an asset for Labour, which has struggled to gain momentum in public opinion polls and badly wants to regain government power. The video incident also comes when even Labour Party colleagues have called on him to keep a low profile and even bow out of politics.
In another interview illustrating the forces within Labour against him, retired top Labour official, Grethe Fossum, had told NRK earlier Thursday evening that she thinks it’s “time for Trond Giske to find something else to do,” and act in the best interests of the party instead of his own political career and power. Fossum has earlier claimed that Giske is “sick on power” and “doesn’t understand what he’s done.”
Newspaper Aftenposten reported Friday how Fredrik Mellem, the head of the party chapter in Oslo who thinks Giske should bow his head in shame, went further. In an email to the chapter’s roughly 950 members, Mellem wrote that if he’d been reprimanded by party leaders like Giske was last year, “I would be most concerned with not inflicting more disgrace on the party than I already had, and I would have felt shame for a very, very long time. I would never have sought new positions within the Labour Party.”