NEWS ANALYSIS: Trond Giske, the former government minister and deputy leader of the Labour Party, wielded power and influence in Norway for many years. Now he and his partner Haddy Njie have spoken out for the first time on Giske’s dramatic loss of power and position in the wake of sexual harassment allegations against him, and even Njie perhaps unwittingly pointed to how Giske’s lack of humility played into his decline.
Both opted mostly for murdering the messenger in a documentary aired by TV2 Thursday night. They blamed not only Labour Party colleagues who leaked information (about sexual harassment complaints filed against Giske and how Labour leaders were handling the complaints) but also the media for reporting them.
“Some journalists were driven by MeToo (the international campaign against sexual harassment) and (a desire) to reveal folks they believed had done bad things,” Njie said on TV2’s documentary program Vårt lille land (Our little country). Others, she claimed, were “driven because (the story) sold well, and some were driven because it’s always fun to unseat a top politician, especially one who has been in so many storms and has such little humility as Trond has had.”
Giske was indeed known for being anything but humble. He was instead a career politician, secure in his power base in the central Norwegian district of Trøndelag despite living in Oslo for many years. He often got what he wanted, unafraid to wage power struggles also internally within the Labour Party. He has long represented the more left wing of the party, when former party leader and prime minister Jens Stoltenberg and current party leader Jonas Gahr Støre represented the more conservative and pro-EU side of Labour.
From appeasement to crackdown
Both Stoltenberg and Støre had a need to appease Giske, which is another reason why the media closely followed how Støre would respond to and handle the complaints filed by several different women over Giske’s alleged sexual harassment that extended over many years. The case wasn’t only about Giske’s bad behaviour for which he did apologize on national TV. It was a test of Støre’s leadership.
Støre ended up taking a relatively hard stance against Giske, declaring that Giske’s behaviour was not in line with party regulations against harassment. Giske was stripped of his role as finance policy spokesperson (which he’d obtained just months earlier in a power play against the Labour MP who’d been spokesperson in recent years, Marianne Marthinsen) and ended up being forced to resign as deputy leader. He retains his seat in Parliament and is now free to actively participate in the party, but lost a recent comeback attempt to win a seat on the party’s important national board.
Giske and Njie, a Norwegian entertainer who has been at his side since the harassment allegations began, also blamed that latest defeat on the media, specifically newspaper VG, which had quickly picked up video of Giske dancing late at night with a young woman at a bar in Oslo earlier this spring. VG allegedly misquoted the woman saying that Giske’s attention “got to be a bit much.” The newspaper apologized after the woman later told TV2 she really hadn’t been bothered by Giske’s attention and that she had indeed been misquoted. Giske and Njie, who’s had a high-profile career of her own, said they felt like their future was in the young woman’s hands, and that she ultimately vindicated Giske even though he had unmistakably put himself in another dubious position that even an old party colleague friend believed was unwise.
Giske now says he lost his footing in all possible ways, feeling like there was so safe place to go anymore, and that he was utterly defenseless. He also criticized his former co-deputy leader Hadia Tajik, over how she publicly characterized the complaints against him as being deeply disturbing. Giske and his defenders suggest Tajik was out to get Giske since the two were often in conflict.
Neither Tajik nor other Labour leaders have been keen to comment on Giske’s own complaints in TV2‘s documentary. A Labour Party spokesperson told state broadcaster NRK that they planned to watch the documentary and would evaluate whether to comment later. Tajik was said to have recently undergone some long-planned surgery and was unable to respond.
Both Giske and Njie complained that in their view, “all the limits were gone,” both within the party and the media. “There were such massive leakage within the party, things that really should have stayed within the leadership were sent straight out to newspaper editorial departments,” Njie said. Added Giske: “There was no threshold any longer for what could be printed. There was no demand for documentation, or having two sources. Folks could say what they want anonymously and it went right out to the media.”
That’s been firmly denied by several editors, not least Amund Djuve, the editor-in-chief of newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) that broke one of the first stories about the complaints against Giske in December 2017. “This case was about a series of complaints from a series of various women, who believed Trond Giske over a period of many years had misused his position to behave badly towards them, and had among other things, engaged in sexual harassment,” Djuve told TV2.
Djuve said the case was difficult to cover, “but we have believed it was important to report on cases in which a deputy leader and former government minister had misused his position.” He also insisted that Giske had many opportunities to defend himself that he didn’t take. Apart from a live appearance on NRK’s nightly national newscast Dagsrevyen just before Christmas, in which he apologized for behaviour that he only later has understood was deemed offensive, Giske mostly refused to respond to questions and requests for comment.
Both Giske and Njie claim they intially welcomed the MeToo campaign, and thought it was good that women were finally revealing cases of sexual harassment over the years. That was before Giske landed among the accused. Giske acknowledges that he was known as “the party minister,” who liked being out drinking and dancing late at night, not least after an earlier divorce followed by a new period of bachelorhood. “I lived the single life” in Oslo, he told TV2. “Some people thought it was great to be standing next to a government minister at the bar.” He did not deny he was often characterized as being under the influence of alcohol.
Njie claimed she didn’t get angry with him, saying “I couldn’t manage that when he was so sorry” for how he’d acted. “He was ashamed.” Giske told TV2 that he “had something to learn from MeToo,” and that he still can’t understand why or how he couldn’t see that there often was an “imbalance of power” between himself and the young women he openly pursued. “That was naive and wrong and I just have to learn from it.”
There was thus a new glimpse of humility around Trond Giske. TV2’s news editor Karianne Solbrække said the documentary aimed to spur debate over whether those targeted by complaints have enough rights to defend themselves, and whether complaints are probed well enough. The cases often pit the word of one person against another, with no hard evidence.
Official party apology
Kjersti Stenseng, the secretary of the Labour Party who was long viewed as a Giske ally, issued a public apology at Labour’s recent annual national meeting to all the women who were finally motivated by the MeToo campaign to file complaints of harassment over the years. She said it was important for the party to finally take harassment seriously, after many have suffered from it. Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former three-term prime minister for Labour, told newspaper Dagsavisen that it was wise of Stenseng to apologize.
“It wasn’t exactly elegant when this all came up a year-and-a-half ago,” Brundtland said. “It was clear that the system (for cracking down on harassment) has not functioned. That’s what she (Stenseng) admitted.”
Giske’s future in Labour remains unclear. He recently created more conflict when he joined a party colleague in Trøndelag in harshly criticizing the so-called “Oslo politial elite” that he ironically was a big part of for many years. Giske also praised the Center Party, which has a strong base in Trøndelag and often pits Norway’s rural districts against its cities: “They’re good at portraying the distance between the Oslo elite and the rest of the country,” Giske told Trondheim newspaper Adresseavisen.
That brought rebukes from both Støre and Labour’s mayor in Oslo, Raymond Johansen, who called Giske’s comments “primitive and politically opportunistic.” With Center rising in the polls and Labour lagging, maybe Giske will ultimately seek new opportunities elsewhere.