Denmark’s #MeToo wave appeared later than in many countries, and came from the media sector. The Fix spoke to Ida Herskind, a journalist at leading Danish daily broadsheet newspaper Politiken, about how they kept the conversation focused on women’s stories, not the oppressors.
There is a popular view of Denmark as a country with gender equality enforced at every institutional level and deeply rooted in the culture. But the country’s labour market is divided and there is a significant pay gap between men and women.
“We were front-runners, especially when it comes to women participation in the labour market … due to access to good facilities, such as kindergartens”, Henriette Laursen, the director of Kvindfo, an organization that works on gender, equality and diversity issues told my colleague Adrienne Murray.
“But it is as if we stayed where we were”, she added, citing underrepresentation of women in management roles and a lack of sexual violence laws as areas where the country is lagging.
Herskind has been reporting on the #MeToo debate. As opposed to the US, where the conversation focused on powerful individuals and their scandals, the Danish debate mostly centered on women’s personal testimonies.
According to Herskind this allowed for less polarised coverage and helped the country re-examine the issue: “When you have a thousand six hundred women journalists telling you that there is a problem, you need to pay attention to what they are saying and why”.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Alicja Peszkowska: Who is Sofie Linde and what happened on September 11 at the ZULU Comedy Gala?
Ida Herskind: Sofie Linde is a popular TV host, currently hosting Danish X-factor. You could call her “a darling”. She is much liked by children and families and has a big crowd of followers on social media.
She never really made political statements before. Last September, however, she got to host the ZULU Comedy Gala Show, an award show usually hosted by men presenters. She used the opportunity to talk about sexism, both in terms of equal pay in showbiz and harassment – specifically an unwanted advance she was victim of more than 10 years ago, early on in her career.
According to her a big TV host, whom she didn’t name, approached her at a party hosted by the Danish broadcaster DR. He asked her to give him a blowjob and threatened to ruin her career. She claimed she refused but still managed to become pretty successful.
Since the audience was filled with media people and journalists Sofie Linde made headlines even before the show aired on TV.
AP: What were those headlines about?
IH: Influencers, journalists, and public intellectuals decided to say what they thought of Linde’s speech and she became an object of a lot of criticism. Some blamed her for not telling the story earlier and not naming the TV host who harassed her.
A couple days later public TV channel DR2 hosted a debate with Sofie Linde and a few politicians. It included two women with ties to the right-wing side of the spectrum. They criticised her for talking about something that happened so long ago and remarked that feminism was getting too extreme.
This triggered a response from women working at the same TV channel as Sofie Linde. They were unnerved to see people dismiss her story rather than taking it at face value and discussing the issue of sexism in the media, which was why she made her statement.
AP: What happened next?
IH: I think it was a group of eight women journalists who then, after hours, started working on a public letter to Sofie Linde. It supported her, stating they, too, had experienced sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace.
They wrote it so that you could simply read the letter, or sign it to support their message. You could also let people know if you experienced harassment and sex-based discrimination, or witnessed it happening to somebody else.
They circulated it among journalists, asking them to sign, which was when we at Politiken received it and asked if we could publish it. Even though other media also talked to the authors about publishing the letter, they decided to let us publish it. Possibly because we had covered #MeToo stories before. It happened on Friday the week after the gala.
AP: How did you approach publishing the letter?
IH: We published it on the front page along with the 701 names of women working in the Danish media industry who had signed the letter at that time. It looked a little like the New York Times front-page commemorating Covid-19 victims.
In the same issue we also published an article giving some context and our interview with the eight journalists who initiated the letter. The article also featured stories of women journalists who were sexually harassed and agreed to share their stories.
On top of that, we interviewed five senior editors from DR, TV2, Ekstrabladet, BT and Politiken. To our surprise, three out of five denied there was anything morally questionable happening in their workplace.
AP: How was this coverage received?
IH: Over the weekend – as if in reaction – many more women journalists supported the letter. It ended up having 1,651 signatures.
The signatures revealed the real identities of women, some of them very well known journalists, working in the Danish media. Apart from signing the letter many also submitted stories describing their experience of sex-based discrimination or harassment.
AP: How did you cover these personal testimonies?
IH: We only published 13 of them the first time. They were based on the interviews we conducted. However, we did not have any documentation or other sources confirming them. That is why we decided to not denounce names or workplaces named by the authors.
AP: Why did you decide to do that?
IH: We wanted to give our readers some context by sharing real-life examples. Reading the letter, it was hard to understand whether those signing it were doing so because they experienced harassment themselves, witnessed such a situation or simply wanted to support Sofie Linde.
This is also why we decided to include these testimonies, to show what the signatories and the authors of the letter meant and thus give our readers more relatable information
AP: Can you give a sense of what was in the testimonies?
IH: The first came from a 33-year-old journalist. The scene unravels at night in one of the TV stations in 2018 – that is the only information you get. The story goes: I am working late with a male colleague and I thank him for helping me so late at night, he replies “you can thank me by stripping for me”.
Another testimony by a journalist, also 33, took place in 2015 – my boss grabbed my ass and told me it was big and nice.
AP: How would you characterize the testimonies? They sound quite different from those in the American #MeToo wave, with people like Jeffrey Epstein and Henry Weinsten being denounced as sexual predators.
IH: Yes, the stories were different. They were supposed to show what women meant by sexual harassment and discrimination.
It was also important to see the mix. Some stories were very, very much over the top and unacceptable. Some were more subtle, with the sexism more difficult to pinpoint and understand.
One woman, for example, shared that she was called beautiful every day at work and it made her feel uncomfortable. We tried to include stories from both ends of the spectrum.
AP: Would these examples be considered a violation under Danish law?
IH: We talked to a lawyer working with the labour unions and with experience of similar cases a couple of days after the publication. In her opinion, out of the thirteen testimonies we published, twelve would be legally classified as sexual harassment.
We also wanted to show what situations our female colleagues were uncomfortable with without judging them. To bring it out to the public and start a conversation. There was also a disclaimer, featured next to the stories. We said these are just personal testimonies, that we can not guarantee all these things happened exactly as described.
If I could do something differently now, I would have consulted the lawyer prior to the publication and included her opinion in the piece. Actually, if you are a boss you can’t call your employee beautiful every day.
AP: What was the common denominator in the stories you uncovered?
IH: A week after the first article with 701 names, we wrote about how freelancers and female interns were particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment and discrimination. This was actually the point brought up by the Danish journalists’ workers union.
We talked to eight women who experienced sexual harassment while being in such precarious positions. This time we did fact-check their stories.
We also included statements from experts explaining how power dynamics have a huge impact on harassment. Only two of the women whose story we featured managed to bring this issue up to her bosses.
AP: Were there any migrant or non-ethnically Danish voices present in the conversation?
IH: Unfortunately that didn’t come out in these conversations. From what I know of, no research has specifically looked into this and so it was not the focus of our coverage.
AP: A 2017 survey found that almost half of Danes believed #MeToo to be necessary but “exaggerated”, while 2 in 5 respondents thought the movement had no effect on the way people behave. Why do you think a #MeToo conversation started in Denmark just now?
IH: When #MeToo was exploding in the US a few years ago, it was a bit shocking that it didn’t bring forward more Danish cases or testimonies.
There were some conversations afterwards. People wondered if this silence was simply because we didn’t have such cases in Denmark or no one was talking about them.
There was no conclusion to this debate. Now, it came almost out of nowhere. Sofie Linde’s statement really triggered an avalanche. The discussion moved from the media to politics, to academia. It even ended up with the mayor of Copenhagen, leading him to resign.
AP: How is the story unravelling now?
IH: Following our stories many more came from different media. For example, a story written by interns who had worked at DR. Different media and newspapers started their own investigations.
That includes media organisations, political parties, and universities. Apart from investigations they are having so-called “dialogue meetings” to understand what to change and improve. To create a comfortable space for people to come forward when they experience issues at work.
AP: It seems you managed to avoid polarising the topic and covered it in an ethical, fact-based way. Was there any criticism of Politiken’s coverage?
IH: The biggest difference between now and three years ago, when the #MeToo movement in the US just saw daylight, is that now even conservative media acknowledge that sexism is a problem and, moreover, a systemic one.
They cover the issue and few people question whether it is right or not to focus on the topic. Danish media are examining our journalism practice and the methods used to cover the issue. Whether we should have let the perpetrators stay anonymous, was it right to publish anonymised testimonies etc.
Some of the criticism regards the speed with which the discussion unravelled and the unhealthy competition between the media on who breaks which stories first.
Even though it started in the media, and maybe that is why it got so much coverage, it has now spread to other sectors of society.
Alicja Peszkowska is a Copenhagen-based consultant, researcher, and a participation strategist focused on technology, digital culture, and social change. Her track record includes working with IOVIA, Outriders, Facebook Journalism Project, Google News Initiative, TechSoup Europe, and Creative Commons.