Media Criticism: The Arrest of Varg Vikernes

This post originally appeared on Houdini's Revenge

One of the goals of Houdini’s Revenge is to look critically at how we receive information and come to believe what it is we believe.  Because of the way information is disseminated these days, we can no longer expect to read the news and know that we are reading the truth.  But it’s worse than that because these days we can’t even be sure that media outlets are even making an attempt to investigate what they are reporting to the public.  When dozens of websites republish the same initial report, if that initial report is completely wrong, by the time any errors are noted, the story is already all over the world and repeated without reflection.

On July 16, a friend on my Facebook left me a comment telling me that he had thought of me when he read Boing Boing!  I have a lot of strange irons in busy fires, so I had to go comb the site to see what he meant.  Within a minute, all was explained.  Xeni Jardin had posted a blurb that referred to an AFP article about the French police arresting Varg Vikernes.   This is the entire news blurb from Jacques Clement’s AFP article, link to article in quote:

Kristian Vikernes, a Norwegian neo-Nazi black metal musician and convicted killer who goes by the name of “Varg,” has been arrested in France over suspicions that he was planning a “major terrorist act.” He is reported to be linked to Norwegian mass killer Anders Behring Breivik, and he once stabbed a fellow musician to death, and set fire to several churches in the early 1990s.

Regardless of what anyone thinks of Vikernes’ politics, social beliefs or his past, we should all be extremely concerned that this news blurb from AFP that became the backbone of dozens and dozens of articles that reported this story has two major problems in just two sentences.  The first is that Varg Vikernes has not been known as “Kristian” in almost two decades.  Calling him “Kristian Vikernes” and mentioning he goes by “Varg” is like writing an article about “Thomas Mapother IV” and mentioning he goes by Tom Cruise.  I have no idea why AFP made the decision to make that strange distinction, but it set the tone for what was to come in the second sentence.

The second sentence is a hoot.  Varg Vikernes was “reported to be linked to” Anders Behring Breivik?  Ten minutes on Google would have made it impossible for any reporter worth a tinker’s damn to support such an accusation.  If nothing else, it would have made for far better reporting to have at least investigated what Varg had said about Breivik before they had run articles about his arrest.  Perhaps they could have added Varg’s own words from his websites as a counterpoint to the charges against him.  Perhaps Clement could have, you know, reported instead of vomiting up the vomiting up some official reports and adding some sly insinuations to spice up his article. 

From the two linked articles above, here’s some of what Varg Vikernes thinks about Breivik:

Oh, and by the way; true nationalists don’t kill children of their own nation, even if someone tries to brainwash them, like AUF did. They were not (yet) Marxist extremists; they were just children.

What I suspect when I read about how Breivik deals with prison life is that Breivik thought to himself (being one of those ignorant FRP-members after all) that spending the rest of his life in a Norwegian prison would be a walk in the park. His “grand sacrifice” of his own freedom was probably based on just that; the ignorant FRP perception of the Norwegian prison system. He surely realises now that he was wrong, and that prison life is not so easy after all. Poor Breivik… he cannot play WoW from his luxury prison cell for the rest of his life after all, as I am sure he thought he could.

To Breivik I can only say I hope you do kill yourself. You have killed more Norwegians than the entire Muslim population in Norway has done the last 40 years, and you claim to be a Norwegian nationalist and patriot…

Rather than reproduce variations of the same crappy blurb that Xeni produced, wouldn’t it have been interesting if someone had done the work that Jacques Clement failed to do and looked into the claims that Varg was linked to Anders Behring Brevik and determined if such claims held any water and published them along with the allegations against him?

What was the link between Varg and Breivik?   Well, you see, it was claimed he received a copy of Breivik’s manifesto, 2083, via e-mail.  Breivik sent out a mass e-mailing of his magnum opus to just over a thousand people and the Norwegian authorities claimed that Varg was in receipt of a copy.

Varg claims that he never received a copy and I believe that to be correct because he and Breivik have very different views on Christianity and Judaism, but outside of what Varg has said about the matter, I can find nothing online that indicates why the authorities thought he received the manifesto, something easily enough investigated.  Nevertheless, it would appear that someone in Norway was convinced that Varg received a copy of 2083 and that receipt of the manifesto was reason enough to begin an open-ended investigation into Varg and his wife.  Oh, Marie Cachet, Varg’s pregnant wife, was also arrested that day because since Varg was under investigation for allegedly receiving 2083, his wife legally buying four rifles was seen as evidence the two were planning a terrorist event.

Let’s dissect this, shall we?  It is here that I need to disclose that I considered Vikernes a friend for years.  We are not friends, as such, any longer, but we exchanged letters for years.  It may seem odd that a person like me would be friends with a person like Vikernes, but then again, as a liberal atheist, I have conservative Christian friends.  People are often, for me at least, more than the sum total of their beliefs. Varg the human being is easily a likeable man.  That I know Varg is important to mention because when the bombs went off in Norway, I quickly messaged Varg because I was concerned about his mother.  The last I had talked to her she was working in Oslo so I wanted to make sure she was all right.

Varg and I exchanged a series of e-mails as the world found out about the man who killed teenagers in the name of ending Islamic immigration into Europe.  At the beginning, Varg was interested in Breivik and watched his video, making no mention of receiving a manifesto.  Had he received a copy, he would have mentioned it.  And if he received a copy, he had no idea what it contained because Varg’s e-mails to me show that he learned about Breivik alongside the rest of us and, as he learned about the man, his disgust for Breivik grew.

I wondered if I would need to send my e-mails to someone, a defense attorney perhaps.  I even consulted a family member who is a lawyer, who advised me to wait (and really, I have to think that if Varg was under surveillance for several years because he may or may not have received a copy of a manifesto, the authorities already know about those e-mails).  And sure enough, Varg and his wife were released because there was no evidence they were planning a terrorist act so I didn’t need to do anything.  But the more I read about the case, the more and more uneasy I became.

So for the sake of argument, let’s assume Varg received a copy of 2083 (though he says he didn’t and because of the e-mails we shared I believe him).  As I mentioned earlier, 1,003 people received copies of 2083. The e-mail addresses were obtained by Anders Behring Breivik via a Facebook group he maintained – not a single recipient was proved to have had prior knowledge of what Breivik had planned to do.  There were several famous racists investigated closely after the release of 2083.  Peder Jensen, aka “Fjordman,” whose body of work is quoted liberally in 2083 and whose words deeply inspired Breivik, was investigated and later exonerated of any blame in the massacre.  Paul May, who received a copy of the manifesto, was investigated thoroughly and cleared.

Yet in France, no one had ever managed to clear Varg of alliance with Breivik until his wife legally purchased some firearms:

“Having received the manifesto before (Breivik) committed his crimes and having been sentenced in Norway in the past for murder, this individual, who was close to a neo-Nazi movement, was likely to prepare a large terrorist act,” Valls said.

Cachet, a member of a shooting club, purchased the rifles legally with her shooting permit. “The investigation will notably establish the conditions in which these (rifles) were acquired and their real objective,” Valls said.

The anti-terrorist prosecutor has been put in charge of the investigation. In a statement, the French Ministry of the Interior deemed him “likely to prepare a large-scale act of terrorism”.

What kind of large-scale terrorism attack can a set of parents, the wife pregnant, raising three children, rabbits, chickens and more or less homesteading in the French countryside accomplish with four rifles?  Not automatic.  Not semi-automatic.  Just regular guns like I have in my own home. And why is the potential receipt of that manifesto from a man whom Varg despises and has derided the deciding factor that he is likely to commit a terrorist act?  Don’t worry, Interior Minister Manuel Valls could not answer the question either.  From Jacques Clement’s AFP article:

Interior Minister Manuel Valls conceded that they had as yet identified “no target, no plan” but intelligence chiefs had decided it was important “to act before and not afterwards”.

So Varg’s potential receipt of the manifesto was grounds for opening a case against Varg, a case he was unaware of, a case that permitted French authorities to arrest him and his wife in a no-knock raid because his wife legally purchased four rifles. And now, Varg and his wife can own no guns in France at all despite being cleared of all charges.  All based on a suspected terror attack that had “no target, no plan.”

No matter how you feel about Varg’s personal beliefs, this should alarm you and it should make you angry that the press’ first reaction to this was to do what they always do – print the easiest story and replicate it all over the web.  Subsequent articles have cleared up some of the errors and some have questioned the validity of the French investigation, but when you search for “Varg Vikernes arrest France” you get all those “Kristian Vikernes, stage name Varg” articles.  You have to dig before you get much of substance.

At some point, the public is going to have to wake up and see two things at work in the media. The first is that because of the way the Internet works, the AP, UPI and assorted wires have got to do better because their work is what is reproduced all over the Internet and seldom are their initial stories updated by places like Boing Boing and The Huffington Post.  In my discussion of parts of the Boston Marathon Bombing, I discussed how it is that all initial reports are garbage.  It’s become so endemic that I wonder how it is that we tolerate it.  Is it because we’ve become too lazy?  Is it because we use easy lingo to demonize people?  The Tsarnaev brothers are Muslim so who cares if the story is correct. Varg Vikernes is a neo-Nazi so it doesn’t matter if the press mishandles every aspect of his arrest.  That’s the message we are receiving from the media – quick, easy and misleading is all we deserve and all they will give us.  They are slaves to their deadlines, and not to any truth and we forget that to our detriment.

The second is that the media is clearly nothing more than apologists for power.  There are some good investigative reporters out there. Increasingly there are fewer, and the staff reporters on wires cannot be investigative reporters, but there is no way to walk away from Jacques Clement’s AFP article with anything but a sickening sense that he was all too willing to say what was needed to create the salacious, nasty views of Varg and his wife that fed into an official need to investigate the dangerous and degenerate couple.

Seriously, what was the point of this, all cases of bold mine:

“He doesn’t speak French very well,” Chauffour said, adding that the family had three children and Cachet was pregnant with her fourth. It is unclear whether all the children are the musician’s.

Why does anyone need to speculate on the parentage of Marie Cachet’s children, especially since she has been Varg’s girlfriend before she ever became pregnant?  To smear her.

The young woman’s mother appears to have taken care of their children, who did not go to school, the mayor said.

Varg Vikernes’ and Marie Cachet’s oldest son is five-years-old.  He turns six next month. Mandatory education in France does not begin until age six.  Though many begin their children in school as young as three in France, Marie Cachet is a stay-at-home-mother and at home with her children all day.  There seems little need to draw attention to the fact that the children are not in school.  People home school a lot in the United States and home schooling is perfectly legal in France.  But then again, so was Marie’s purchase of rifles.

And let’s talk about those rifles.

Officers seized five long-range weapons at their home including four 22 Caliber Long Rifles.

Four .22 caliber rifles?  Are you kidding me?  That is the arsenal the French authorities thought Varg and his pregnant wife were going to use in a massive terrorist attack?  I don’t even know how to respond to this, it is so ridiculous, but I’m going to try.  The type of ammunition used by some of Varg’s weapons is called .22 Long Rifle, more commonly called .22 LR.  Jacques Clement writes about the guns in such a way to make it seem as if there are four Long Rifles in .22 caliber.  It seems as if Clement is, either through ignorance or deliberate design, writing about the weapons in a manner so as to insinuate that Marie Cachet had purchased sniper weapons.

But the errors continue apace.  From Varg himself I know that the following weapons and ammunition were seized from his home:

1. Browning lever-action rifle. Mag capacity: 10+1. 22 LR
2. CZ 457 bolt-action rifle. Mag capacity: 10+1. 22 LR
3. CZ 527 bolt-action rifle. Mag capacity: 5+1. 222 Remington.
4. Bajkal MP43 side-by-side shotgun. Mag capacity: 2. 12 gauge.
5.  About 8500 rounds for these rifles. Most (about 7500) of them were 22 LR

Not too many large terrorist actions can be pulled off with bolt action and lever action .22 rifles, unless your enemy is a warren of particularly vicious rabbits.  These are hunting rifles.  Varg and his wife were arrested for legally purchasing hunting rifles because he may have or may not have received an e-mail from a lunatic who sent his manifesto unasked to hundreds of people.  Clement also got very basic facts wrong, like saying Varg has three children.  Varg has three children with Marie Cachet, and an older, college-age daughter from a brief fling when he was a teenager.

There’s no way around it – Jacques Clement’s early report on Vikernes’ arrest was a hit piece.  It was a crappily constructed hit piece that likely borrows very heavily from official reports, one suspects, but a hit piece nonetheless.  Even in an early report, Clement should have asked how it is that a terrorist insurrection could be managed with four .22 caliber weapons (as he reported them).  One also wonders why the schooling and parentage of the children had any reason to be included.  Why is a first report from a wire news agency writing a hit piece?  Brings us back to my second point – apologists for power.

Not everyone can immediately know when the news is wrong.  I had an inside track on what Varg thought about Anders Behring Breivik and e-mails that showed how in real time Varg reached the same conclusions the rest of the word reached about the bomber and killer of children.  But this is a perfect example of how it is the perspicacious can begin to dissect news articles for signs that the article is garbage.  Are things that have little to do with the case at hand mentioned, like the parentage of children in a terrorism arrest?  Is nonsense being presented without commentary, like the legal purchase of hunting rifles being the focus of a terrorist plot?

I don’t know how we can fix this but perhaps just being media aware and critical of the information we receive is the first step.  But something is going to have to change because increasingly the first reports become the only reports and what passes for news is just noise.

And while Varg is a man of well-known opinions on race, this article is not dealing with those opinions.  Please keep comments on topic because the lady of the house is respectfully asking you to discuss media manipulation and bad reporting, and not your opinion on whichever race you despise.  I will pull in my welcome mat for those who track in mud.

You can also learn more about what happened to Marie and Varg by reading his blog.

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