Selfie Nation: Inspired by Foreign Journalists, Part II

Paparazzi

“The untamed, distant and cool Iceland”

“A few reasons why Iceland is the best place in the world”

Those are random headlines I spotted on Icelandic news sites the day I wrote this article. Both stories report on articles that appeared in the foreign media. On any given day over the past five years or so, I probably could have found similar headlines. Judging by the Icelandic media, foreigners are simply going mad for Iceland, at an un­prece­dented rate.

But what changed? Icelandic nature is mostly the same as it was prior to 2008’s economic collapse (except for the parts that have been destroyed by dams and aluminium smelters, of course), Reykjavík is still the same city, our towns remain the same towns, our villages the same villages, the countryside the same countryside, and so on. Of course we have seen a few positive changes that some of the praise could be credited to—but the most significant contributing factor, however, what really changed, was the marketing.

Get inspired!

The “Inspired by Iceland” PR campaign was launched in the wake of the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption. It eventually turned into a government-funded institution called Promote Iceland. Like most government-funded institutions, Promote Iceland publishes a detailed annual report of its activities, the latest of which covers the year 2013. This report states that:

“This year, Promote Iceland invited representatives from about 100 media outlets to visit the country on organized media trips. In addition, Promote Iceland assisted some 800 journalists in organizing their trips to Iceland, and also worked closely with the PR offices of different arts and festival organizers to help out with such trips.”

This is interesting: while political and financial powers continue suffocating Iceland’s media (via withholding funds and unprecedented interference in general), we operate an entire government institution that flies over at least one hundred foreign journalists every year.

Meanwhile, it is highly unlikely that Icelandic journalists’ trips abroad number in the hundreds. The number is certainly nowhere near the nine hundred that were either invited or assisted in visiting Iceland in 2013. I have personally gone abroad for journalistic reasons five times over the last six years—four times to attend film festivals, and once to report on the then-recently independent Kosovo and the aftermath of the Bosnian war. I always had to pay my own expenses, save for three free nights spent at a Croatian hotel. This is the reality of many local journalists—and not just the freelancers.

If the funds simply weren’t there, this situation would be more acceptable. But, we certainly seem to have money to go around for subsidizing journalistic travels. Alas, only in one direction.

Look at us! Look at us!

A nation certainly has some issues if it keeps yelling: “Look at me, look at me!” while never bothering to look at others; if it would rather broadcast foreign TV shows about fictional Icelandic elves than fund its own programmes about other nations.

Indeed, paying others to talk about ourselves and then loosely translating their words for our local news seems like a contradictory media policy. Using those existing funds to enable some of our own journalists to go abroad and make real, lasting connections with the outside world—not just ones based on empty flattery—could serve as basis for a much more dynamic cooperation with the outside world, in journalism and other fields.

We seem stuck in a hollow praise-relationship with the outer world. We eagerly await the next words of praise, and post them right on our collective Facebook pages the moment they arrive.

As a nation, we started shooting selfies exclusively, way before it was fashionable. And our selfies are meta-selfies, photos of other people’s portraits of ourselves.

This development been ongoing since the crash of 2008. During that time, the number of PR specialists in Iceland has kept growing, as the number of actual, employed journalists steadily decreases. This is, in part, the work of a government that employs PR personnel for almost every ministry, a government that prefers to pay people for controlling the news that is being reported rather than help journalists come by the necessary funds and resources to actually report the news.

Of course, a government that’s allergic to criticism welcomes this development. But for the society it serves, it is less than thrilling. Surely, a steady stream of foreign journalists to the country, balanced with a steady stream of Icelandic journalists reporting on and seeking the viewpoint of the outside world, would create the sort of dynamic dialogue that we are sorely missing.

Finally: as the title indicates, this article is a sequel. Four and a half years ago, 23 foreign journalists were invited here to report on Icelandic musicians. At the time, I penned an article that seems worthy of a revisit:

Inspired by Foreign Journalists

The Cannes Film Festival, Roskilde and Glastonbury. Those festivals have at least two things in common: all are among the most famous and prestigious cultural festivals in the world—and no Icelandic newspaper sent a correspondent to any of them in 2010.

We all know the reasons—the local media suffers from budget cuts, while fewer and fewer journalists can afford to fund such trips out of pocket. This is just one of the luxuries that we had to forego post-collapse, right? Yet, the problem runs deeper. There was rarely money—or ambition—to be found for such trips during the boom years. There is little acknowledgement of how productive journalistic trips abroad can be as important for the Icelandic media as the translation of world literature is for our literature, because without it, local media and local literature will quickly become stale.

One possible solution is to offer state grants for projects or trips too expensive for the newspapers to fund on their own—but such a fund is nowhere to be found in Iceland (such journalism funds, both state run and private, are quite common in Europe). The money for such a fund nevertheless seems to be there, as 23 journalists were recently sponsored by the government to go abroad for a concert. Those 23 journalists work for esteemed publications and I have no doubt that they are good journalists.

But none of those journalists are Iceland­ic. They came from esteemed international media outlets such as Danmarks Radio, Politiken, Sunday Times, Dazed & Confused, NME and Die Welt, and they attended concerts with Hjaltalín and the National Symphony Orchestra (fourteen journalists) and For a Minor Reflection’s album release show (nine journalists). Most of those journalists came from big media companies, media companies that ought to be able to pay themselves for visits abroad, unlike their Icelandic counterparts.

This initiative would have made me happy if it signified a newfound generosity towards foreigners, but on the contrary it‘s really a symptom of a deeply rooted apathy about the outside world. Our interest in the outside world seems non-existent, except when the outside world is talking about us. As long as it‘s positive. If not, we put our heads in the sand and speak of envy and mean foreigners who pick on the little island.

This has nothing to do with the love of music or journalists—on the contrary it suggests that artists mostly have value as long as they attract tourists and journalists only have value if they can be used for promotional purposes.

This play, then, reaches surreal heights when detailed articles (yet usually devoid of criticism) appear in the Icelandic media about the trips foreign journalists took in the country to speak about Icelandic bands. By now, I don’t only have to read the foreign media to get proper coverage of foreign culture—I also have to read it to get proper coverage of Icelandic artists.

The latter article originally appeared in Icelandic in the now defunct website Kistan on July 27, 2010.

Ásgeir H Ingólfsson

Originally published in The Reykjavík Grapevine on January 26th 2015.

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