Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The "Cartoon Row" dissected -- part 8

(continued from Part 7)

As the boycott of Danish goods continued to affect Danish exports to the Middle East, the Danish company that was under most pressure was Arla, a dairy goods conglomerate responsible for most of the Danish dairy exports, as well as most of the domestic market. Arla had recently had an unpleasant encounter with the effects of consumer boycott -- they had for several years been subjected to a domestic boycott, resulting from public outrage at their bullying tactics towards minor competitors.

The domestic boycott had not been overwhelmingly effective, but had nevertheless resulted in an overall loss of Arla's market coverage in Denmark of several percentage points. This translated to a great deal of money, and Arla had learnt its lesson. Faced with a potentially equally harmful boycott (the Islamic countries constituted a much larger market, but with much less market penetration than Denmark, for a net result of approximately similar levels of potential harm), Arla was well aware of the potential damage to their interests, and wisely chose to play it safe and avoid antagonizing Muslim consumers further.

For this reason, Arla had, in mid-February, formally renounced any support for the caricatures and Jyllands-Posten, and undertaken an intensive advertising campaign in the Middle East, trying to convince the consumers not to punish Danish companies for the activities of a single Danish paper. Humanitarian aid (to organisations like the Red Crescent) was part of the campaign, aimed at winning back the consumers of the Islamic world.

While this was going on, the huge and influential Danish shipping, transport and industrial conglomerate, A.P. Møller (Mærsk Line), continued its activities in the Middle East unabated. Most national governments were not going to let a little thing like consumer outrage get in the way of critical infrastructure development and transportation, and A.P. Møller knew that very well. The development by Mærsk of a USD 5 billion off-shore oil field in Qatar continued unabated. At an energy conference in Doha, on February 19 2006, the Qatari Minister of Oil, Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah made it clear that the caricatures were not going to change the way Qatar dealt with Mærsk.

Not surprisingly, Arla's willingness to disavow Jyllands-Posten was viewed in some quarters in Denmark as a disloyal and cowardly surrender to economic pressure. The perception was that the Danish companies were far more interested in making money than in standing up for Danish political and moral values.

With this, pressure grew upon PM Anders Fogh Rasmussen to make it clear that the government continued to stand on the principles of free speech, and that the business affairs of these companies did not reflect official government policy. Because the government consisted of two intensely pro-business, pro-market parties, this was even more important.

Moreover, many Danish intellectuals (and in particular, the Danish PEN club association of writers) had come out against the government and the caricatures, branding them culturally insensitive and deliberately confrontational.

It was time for Anders Fogh Rasmussen to take an aggressive stance, and rein in the strays. He'd done so often before, in crisis situations, by forcefully attacking political opponents as well as any voices of dissent within his own party ranks. As brutal as this approach often seemed, it usually worked, leaving his opponents cowed and their criticisms forgotten or overshadowed. In late February, he decided to once more go on the offensive. It was to be one of the most potentially self-destructive decisions of his political career.

Speaking with the pro-government newspaper Berlingske Tidende on February 26, Fogh Rasmussen strongly criticised both the PEN club and the media in Denmark, for failing to take a stand against Islamic aggression. He was especially vitriolic towards the "intellectual elite" who had "failed to defend the free speech that they made their own living off". It was his stated opinion that the intellectuals and the media, "motivated by distaste for the Danish People's Party, for Jyllands-Posten, and for the government" had let themselves be guided by their own prejudice into adopting a double standard.

Referring to the matter of his failure to fully inform the Folketing's committee on foreign affairs (see part 6), he remarked that this was an immaterial matter in the face of the scale of the emergency.

This, too, was a standard crisis management tactic used by Fogh Rasmussen -- ignoring scandals to begin with, and when they could not be ignored, not denying them, but adopting a "pragmatic" attitude that they were minor compared to the "real issues".

Attacking the media and the intellectual elite was standard fare for Fogh Rasmussen. What was not so common was the fact that, lumped in with these two groups, he also accused the Danish companies operating in the Middle East of being "unprincipled", and sacrificing civil rights for monetary gain.

To the Danish companies (which were frantically scrambling to salvage their markets from the long term political and economic fallout of Fogh's catastrophic decision to "tough it out" with the Muslim ambassadors), this attack was shocking. After all, the Danish government was considered to be pro-business, and the Danish mercantile/industrial sector were the financial backers of both government parties. Not unreasonably, this attack was received by Danish industrialists as an act of rank disloyalty.

The very next day, Niels Due Jensen, chairman of the board of directors of the Danish company Grundfos, responded sharply to Fogh's comments, in the pages of Jyllands-Posten. Grundfos, the world's leading producer of pumps, naturally had strong economic interests in the oil-producing Middle East. Niels Due Jensen had previously called for Jyllands-Posten to apologize, and clearly felt that the prime minister's remarks were aimed at him (among others). In an unusually direct statement, Due Jensen said:

"Både statsministeren og Jyllands-Posten har totalt mistet jordforbindelsen i Muhammed-sagen. For princippets skyld kæmper man for ytringsfriheden. Det er også i orden, men når man samtidig krænker millioner af andre mennesker med det, er det ikke i orden længere.
"Jeg er dybt uenig i statsministerens kritik -- og i øvrigt med den kritik, som Jyllands-Posten løbende fremfører mod danskere og erhvervsledere, der har en anderledes mening end dem selv. Vi har ytringsfrihed i Danmark, selv om den kan være upopulær. Jyllands-Posten er selektiv i sit syn på ytringsfrihed. Anderledestænkende bliver tævet og latterliggjort af Jyllands-Posten. Det skulle man holde sig for god til."

("Both the prime minister and Jyllands-Posten have totally lost contact with reality in the Muhammed case. For the sake of principle one fights for freedom of speech. That's all right, but when one simultaneously offends millions of other people with it, it is no longer all right.
"I strongly disagree with the prime minister's criticism -- and furthermore, with the criticism that is continually made by Jyllands-Posten of Danes and business leaders who have a different opinion than they do. We have freedom of speech in Denmark, however unpopular it may be. Jyllands-Posten is selective in its view on freedom of speech. People with differing opinions are {verbally, ed.} beaten up and ridiculed by Jyllands-Posten. This should be beneath their dignity.")

Another Danish business leader, Hans Skov Christensen, CEO of The Confederation of Danish Industries (DI, Dansk Industri), had also previously called for an apology, but disingenuously claimed not to feel targeted by Fogh Rasmussen's criticism. DI had always been in line with government policies, he diplomatically remarked.

But in many sectors of business, irritation with the PM's remarks was evident. As several sources put it, the government had all along made strong efforts to salvage Danish business interests in the affected regions, and had cautioned everyone against confrontational policies -- it seemed unreasonable to turn around and attack the businessmen for keeping a low, non-confrontational profile, as they had been instructed to by the government.

On several separate levels, the decision to attack Danish businessmen for their supposed lack of principles was a major blunder by Fogh Rasmussen. Whether or not the accusation was true, Fogh seemed to have forgotten that the businesses represented the political and financial base of support of both the government parties. On the one hand, the PM's own party, Venstre, was originally largely an agrarian party. Though the agricultural lobby had become less important, they were still a significant part of Venstre's constituency. Furthermore, Venstre's political platform was poro-business and strongly in favour of free markets. Attacking the major agricultural and industrial exporters meant attacking his own supporters. It couldn't help but be seen as a major breach of confidence.

Similarly, the Conservative Party, Fogh Rasmussen's much-neglected and abused junior partners in government, were very strongly involved with Danish mercantile and industrial interests. For them, being involved in Fogh Rasmussen's attack on business leaders meant being tarred with the same brush, without the compensation of being viewed as "taking a stand on principle". They were being taken along for the ride, with or without their consent, and the ticket price was getting expensive.

(Continued in Part 9)

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Anonymous Custom Car Seats said...

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19 April, 2006 09:12  

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