State agency sorry for its fake news

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The new chief executive of the state-owned and funded Innovation Norway, which promotes business development and tourism in Norway, responded to charges on Wednesday that the entire agency should be ashamed of itself. Håkon Haugli, a former politician who took over at the agency last month, says he’s “extremely sorry” its tourism division spread what amounted to fake news.

Innovation Norway was also behind this photo of watches that weren’t spontaneously strapped to the railing of a local bridge. The photo was spread worldwide, but was part of the bluff. PHOTO: Innovation Norway

“When Innovation Norway takes on an active role, it should be visible and open for everyone,” Haugli told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) Wednesday afternoon. He was referring to how the agency had proudly admitted to “fooling the world” with a trumped-up story that the island of Sommarøy in Northern Norway wanted to become the world’s first “time-free zone.”

A supposedly grass-roots initiative to throw away clocks and watches and live without stressful time schedules on Sommarøy was instead the concotion of so-called “creative souls” and paid consultants at Innovation Norway who floated the idea to various communities in Northern Norway as a means of grabbing international interest. A man who reportedly has an ownership interest in a hotel on Sommarøy latched on to the idea and helped set the phoney project into action, right down to strapping allegedly discarded watches onto a bridge.

Now he and other officials at Innovation Norway are in trouble, not only for hatching the false story but also sanctioning its release and for boasting how “successful” they’d been at attracting the unwarranted attention to Sommarøy. The editor-in-chief of a Norwegian press effort devoted to fact-checking was among those disgusted by the bluff, literally headlining a commentary on NRK’s website: “Shame on you, Innovation Norway.”

Kristoffer Egeberg of wrote that he found it “unbelievable” that a Norwegian state agency both financed and produced fake news. “The fact that they did that proudly is downright scary,” he added, going on to sarcastically “congratulate” Innovation Norway for “spending nearly a half-million of taxpayers’ kroner to produce fake news … not in the form of advertising but pure disinformation, consciously misleading information information created to trick and influence people’s choices.”

Egeberg also “congratulated” Innovation Norway and its “PR operators” for “fooling” both Norwegian and major international media outlets including CNN, The Guardian, The Independent and Time magazine. He accused Innovation Norway of discarding its own ethical principles, thumbing its nose at its own integrity and “probably violating marketing law.” All because Innovation Norway’s tourism promotion boss Bente Bratland Holm “no longer believes in traditional advertising.” She had told NRK that “you have to tell a good story,” adding that she was proud of what she called “a very successful stunt.”

Credibility in question
Now the question is whether any media outlet can or will trust information from Innovation Norway again. Calls were going out in social media commentary fields for Holm to “evaluate her position,” which is the Norwegian way of saying she should resign in shame.

Haugli, her boss, became the first Innovation Norway official to criticize his own team and publicly apologize for what they’d done. He told NRK that Innovation Norway staff had not acted in accordance with what’s expected of them, “and I’m extremely sorry about that.”

The agency issued a new press release on Wednesday claiming that “our intention wasn’t to trick anyone.” The agency still tried to explain, though, that “one of our assignments is to market Norway as a travel destination. The goal of the (Sommarøy) campaign was to attract attention to Norway and especially Northern Norway as a travel destination in a new manner.”

It confirmed that the “initiative” for what was actually a promotional campaign “came originally from Innovation Norway.” International media like CNN and Time may understandably be far more skeptical towards any press releases or information from Innovation Norway in the future.

Examining ‘routines’
Now the agency will “go through its routines,” another Norwegian way of acknowledging mistakes. Their boss says there was no reason for them to keep their own involvement in the alleged news from Sommarøy secret. “There should have been openness around that and I’m sorry there wasn’t,” he said.

Others, not least in the press, think Innovation Norway has damaged Norway’s reputation instead of boosting it.

Haugli began in his new top position at the agency on May 15, just three weeks before NRK first wrote about Sommarøy’s alleged effort to “take back time.” He claimed ignorance, saying he hadn’t been made aware of the promotion campaign in advance. Asked whether he should have been, he told NRK that “I at any rate wasn’t familiar with the project beyond what I’ve heard in recent days, and that’s the way it is.” Berglund

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This website hadn’t picked up the initial story about Sommarøy that’s now been trashed as false, partly because of other news priorities at the time and also because of all the coverage it was already receiving in English. Whew.)