The phone rings. It’s Martin Krasnik. He apologises, but he needs to reschedule the interview. He’s simply too busy. Understandably. Over the last week he’s been under intense scrutiny for his coverage of the Gaza conflict. His employer, the state broadcaster DR, has been inundated with hundreds of angry complaints accusing the veteran journalist of not being impartial. Why? Well, he’s Jewish.
He swaggers through the lobby of DR’s headquarters a week later. On TV – where he hosts the debate programme Deadline – he’s a smartly dressed and imposing figure, firing questions at his nervous subjects. But as the photographer snaps away, the 43-year-old journalist looks a little dishevelled, dressed in a green T-shirt and hoodie combo and peering through smudgy glasses. It’s forgivable, and the photographer still manages to capture his signature smirk and boyish features before the interview begins.
“When you grow up in the Danish Jewish community, you don’t really notice that you’re different. You quickly get used to the fenced-in schools and security at the synagogue, but really it’s nothing compared to what it’s like in other countries. And until recently, I’d never actually experienced anti-Semitism. Over the past few weeks I couldn’t just go for a walk in Nørrebro. That would have been really stupid.”
He is referring to the multicultural Copenhagen neighbourhood where, a year earlier, he had walked wearing the traditional Jewish yarmulke. It was an experiment to discover whether it really was dangerous to be openly Jewish in Nørrebro. He received unpleasant verbal abuse but made it out unscathed. Though following the fall-out of a recent interview, he won’t be repeating it.
His subject was the Norwegian doctor Mads Gilbert, who tended the wounded at the Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza. He has accused Israel of genocide while refusing to call Hamas a terror organisation. Krasnik challenged Gilbert – who was been widely consulted as a witness to the conflict by international media – and suggested that he wasn’t a reliable and impartial observer because of his known political activism.
The fallout of the interview was immediate. Krasnik received threats, and thousands signed a petition calling for journalists with Jewish backgrounds to cease reporting on the conflict.
“These morons have been connecting my Jewish background to the issue. You can find my photo placed next to the Israeli flag with the accusation that I’m a spokesperson for the Israel Defence Force,” Krasnik says with an exasperated gesture.
Krasnik denies that his Jewish background makes him more sympathetic to Israelis than Palestinians. In an interview a week before Gilbert’s, Krasnik grilled Israeli deputy ambassador Roi Dvir on whether Israel was really doing its best to avoid civilian casualties, given that hundreds of women and children had been killed during the Israeli offensive. Dvir hit back, accusing Krasnik of not expressing enough sympathy with Israelis who live in range of Hamas rockets.
Krasnik clearly plays devil’s advocate in his interviews and hammers his interview subjects with the same question until he’s satisfied with their answer. Often he isn’t. Last year he interviewed then justice minister Morten Bødskov about the new freedom of information act that limited public access to documents passed between civil servants and the government. Krasnik asked Bødskov 28 times for an example of why ministers need less transparency in order to do their jobs. Bødskov never answered.
“You could ask whether this style of interviewing even succeeds at making us smarter or wiser? Does it bring out new information? And the answer is: probably not. But the point is that it can offer a glimpse into power and how it works, and this is very important,” Krasnik says.
Scrutinising political power
The way he sees it, politicians are unwilling to answer straightforward questions because they want to present politics as a sanitised and conflict-free arena. Denmark’s consensus-driven democracy rests on the assumption that politicians and civil servants have the same interests as the public. And when politicians are unable to answer very basic questions, it reveals that they actually don’t have the public interest at heart.
“The whole discussion of the freedom of information act is so Danish, because few are as closed as the relationship between politicians and the civil service. And this is connected to the false idea that we have a shared common interest. Why should we want to know what they are up to? After all, they know better! They will take care of it!” he exclaims sarcastically.
“It ought to be totally clear on what basis politicians are making policy. The freedom of information act was an obvious effort to make their decision-making even less transparent. And it was an incredible feat, because it was supported by the entire political elite.”
While Krasnik was widely praised for his interview with Bødskov, it’s often hard to tell where Krasnik the journalist ends and Krasnik the opinionated iconoclast begins. He admits that sometimes he’s playing a role, and sometimes he isn’t. But he feels it’s should be obvious when he’s just trying to provoke a reaction.
“We’re talking about politicians, ministers, professors and lecturers, who seem to think what I’m saying is always my own opinion. Some people are just fucking stupid. The fact is that sometimes I agree with what I’m saying, and sometimes what I’m saying is totally bullshit in my opinion. But this is the way to confront people and reveal what they think. Of course what I have to say has to relate to the truth, but it’s simply one version of the truth.”
One of Krasnik’s most outspoken opinions is on the matter of the ritual circumcision of boys. Campaigners against the practice have sought to have it banned, arguing that it infringes on the boys’ right to choose. Krasnik has shot back, arguing that parents make plenty of decisions on behalf of their children, and circumcision is just one of them.
The circumcision debate exposes the invisible cultural gulf between Krasnik and mainstream Danish society. He went to synagogue, was educated at the private, Jewish Carolineskolen, and attended the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. But he’s an atheist who, in a previous interview, referred to Carolineskolen as a ‘Sharia school’ for its religious orthodoxy. He’s also a Dane, and doesn’t think that one identity precludes the other, though some Danes are sceptical.
Conflict is eternal
“The circumcision debate is so much more intense in Denmark than in other European countries, which I think is because Danes are provoked by the notion of having a dual cultural identity. It’s perceived as a provocation, even though there are no obvious contrasts or contradictions. Identity isn’t seen as an individual choice that has no bearing or effect on your citizenship or loyalty or how you function in society. It’s seen as a collective issue, which I think is because as a pluralistic society, we are very young. When I was a kid, the only minorities were Jews and Greenlanders. There was no one else. So people in Denmark haven’t been forced to think about this at all.”
It’s not that Krasnik isn’t accepted and integrated. His performance on Deadline recently earned him the title of Male Host of the Year at the annual TV Festival, while Information newspaper lauded him for finally standing up to spin-trained politicians and their evasive answers. “It was about time the Krasnik method arose,” they wrote in the aftermath of his recent criticism.
He has no plans to leave our TV screens in the near future, for while print media is journalism’s holy grail, it lacks television’s emotional capacity.
“TV can be superficial and stupid and obvious. But while you watch someone talking, you can detect their anger or bullshit or emotions. And we need more emotions in political debate. People don’t have political opinions because of some intellectual calculation. We have them because of how we are brought up and look at people and ourselves how we feel about the most important aspects of life. This is what politics is about. Any political attitude is rooted in a deep anger and insecurity and attitudes toward life and society, which are deeply connected to emotions and feelings,” Krasnik says.
He argues that the success of the populist anti-immigration party DF rests, in part, on their success in communicating through feelings. Krasnik recently took their values spokesperson Pia Kjærsgaard to task over her contention that the Muslim headscarf shouldn’t be afforded the same tolerance as the Jewish yarmulke (see page 5).
“I demonstrated that her arguments didn’t hold water, but she didn’t care, and I think her voters don’t care either. She doesn’t like Muslims, but she likes Jews. To her, there doesn’t have to be any comprehensive structure to that argument,” he says.
Krasnik’s philosophy of confrontation rests on a belief that conflict cannot be resolved. A good TV debate isn’t supposed to sway people from one side to another, but rather expose the feelings that we have.
“People hate each other. That’s the way it is. And it’s OK, as long as they don’t act on it. Then I think it’s fine. If people have nothing better to do than be anti-Semitic, well, that’s a great way to kill a weekend. They just better not do anything about it.” M