Yesterday, one of Iceland’s most anticipated books in the pre-Christmas book flood, a biography of one of Iceland’s most controversial businessmen, hit the market. Once known as “state enemy number one”, Jón Ólafsson’s rags to riches story and his fall from power as the media king of Iceland has intrigued many.
For the last two decades Jón built up a business empire that changed the media landscape in Iceland, which until the mid 80s had one state run television station that took Thursdays off and went on vacation for the month of July. Until Baugur CEO Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson bought the company in 2004, Jón ran and owned debt- ridden Nordurljós, a company that provided the only alternative to the state run broadcast media.
To promote the book Jón appeared on the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service,RÚV, news program Spotlight. The much publicized interview did not air at its scheduled time because of “technical difficulties”. To the frustration of Spotlight’s newscasters conspiracy theorist speculated that the government had banned the interview. In a move to prove them wrong, RÚV posted an un-cut 45 minute version of the interview online. Those expecting a monster, found a sincere if sometimes shifty old man unwilling to speak negatively about those whom he had battled against. He denied that his empire had been founded on drug money and said rejection was a feeling he’d experienced his entire life. He grew up with his grandparents but had to ring the doorbell to play with his half-brothers who lived in the neighborhood. His father did not want anything to do with him.
At a press conference for the book Jón said, “I think the book treats me rather harshly but that is how my life has been. The book mirrors the frame I have had to suffer all my business life and it doesn’t leave anything out. Sometimes I am not entirely satisfied, but that is just how it is. For the last 30 years I have not been especially satisfied so that’s just how it is.”
His biography is called Jónsbók in a reference to 13th century book of law by the same name.
Acclaimed fiction writer Einar Kárason, wrote Jón’s biography – which Jón calls “a tale of battles not a biography”. Einar said he interviewed over 100 people for the book and that the book was written at his instigation.
According to Morgunbladid, Einar said he soon realized how controversial and much talked about Jón was, and “how he often awakens a passionate interest” .
“Throughout, I have found suspicion, but slowly I have come to understand how, even if he is a man of calm and even temperament, somehow these fires keep starting where ever he goes,” said Einar to Morgunbladid.
Einar observed that when Jón was starting his career, the environment of Icelandic business and media were quite entrenched. Jón had challenged the status quo. The management of the banking system had been centralized, and funds directed towards certain business interests. But Jón changed this by getting financing from abroad. That had not been done before. Many had considered him an “unruly” character.
Jón has been in the Icelandic media recently for taking a staunch supporter of former Prime Minister Davíd Oddsson to court in the UK.
Hannes Hólmsteinn Gissurarson, professor of Political Science at the University of Iceland, and well-known friend of former Prime Minister Davíd Oddsson, was found guilty of libel at the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court of Justice in the United Kingdom.
The libel charges arose from a claim Hannes Hólmsteinn made on his University of Iceland website, which implied that Jón might have been involved in the drug business.
Jón, who is an Icelandic citizen but a resident of the UK, sued Hannes Hólmsteinn. The court found that Jón had suffered damage from the “completely untrue” claims. Hannes Hólmsteinn has been ordered to pay Jón the equivalent of ISK 12 million damages.
The ruling has caused much discussion in Iceland. UK libel laws are much harsher than Icelandic ones, and some have questioned whether Icelanders should be able to be sued anywhere for something they wrote in Iceland for an Icelandic web page. Jón’s supporters point out that Hannes Hólmsteinn’s comments had been written in English, and that Jón resides in the UK, and the remarks had caused him damage there.