Denmark’s unprecedented media scandal

A gossip mag takes a page from News of the World's playbook

After managing to keep their honeymoon destination secret throughout their 2008 wedding preparations, Denmark’s Prince Joachim and his bride Marie must have wondered how a Danish reporter was able to find them on their flight home (they answered his questions politely). Six years later, they have their answer. On April 28, Danish newspaper BT broke the news that the gossip magazine Se og Hør (“See and Hear”) purportedly paid a contractor for the banking services company Nets to monitor the credit card activity of members of the royal family and other celebrities.

A little over a week later, the case has become the biggest media scandal in Danish history, and new revelations emerge each day. It has profoundly shocked a country far more accustomed to being hailed as a model of transparency than for News of the World-type shenanigans. And although many here within the media believe Se og Hør’s to be isolated in its tactics, a few critics have openly wondered whether something isn’t rotten in Denmark’s media culture as a whole.

The scandal began to emerge on April 27, when Ken B Rasmussen, a former Se og Hør reporter with a new novel to promote, gave an interview to BT newspaper. The details of the conversation—including the convincing work environment the author gave to his protagonist, a tabloid journalist who bears more than a passing resemblance to Rasmussen himself—were intriguing enough to set BT’s journalists on the trail. Within 24 hours they had verified enough facts to run a story with the headline “See and Hear Behind the Illegal Surveillance of Celebrity and Royal Credit Cards.”

“I’m 32 years old,” says Uffe Jørgensen, the reporter who interviewed Rasmussen. “And as I said to my wife when I got home after one very late night last week, I’m not sure I will ever do such a big story again.”

He may well be right. Two days later after BT ran its story, Henrik Qvortrup, editor of Se og Hør at the time of the alleged leaks, resigned from his current post with Danish public television and some of the magazine’s employees—both current and former—were suspended from their jobs. As Danish celebrities who believe themselves victims of the leaks began to file police complaints, former Se og Hør journalists confirmed that the magazine also had sources within SAS airlines who would leak well-known names that appeared on passenger lists. By May 6, police had charged the IT specialist who leaked the credit card information. Still the revelations kept coming: A photographer said he had notified Nets of the leak in 2013; a television host accused Se og Hør of having a source within Copenhagen’s main hospital who leaked information about his partner’s sonogram appointment.

That all of this could come from a novel is no surprise to the man who started it all. “I knew what we were doing was fucking dangerous,” Rasmussen says of his time at Se og Hør. “And I knew there was going to be a response when the novel came out.” With his scraggly beard and a baseball cap pulled low over his forehead, he looks exactly like you’d expect a whistleblower to look, but he’s not exactly repentant about the years he spent staking out celebrities. “I can’t tell you how many hours of my life I’ve spent hiding in the bushes, or sitting in a car staring at a door,” he says. “But the rush you get when you break a story…you don’t get that anywhere else.”

Even most Danish celebrity journalists didn’t get that rush. Part of what has made Se og Hør’s tactics so surprising to Danes is that they have no real tradition of aggressive gossip media. “Our celebrity journalism is all about creating a sense of hygge, or coziness,” says Kirsten Sparre, media studies researcher at Aarhus University. “The norm for celebrity magazines is to speak to celebrities face to face, to get their active consent, so that you can give the feeling that you’re getting close to them.”

That norm helps explain why, when the News of the World scandal was reaching its peak in Britain in July 2011, Lasse Jensen thought something similar could never happen in Denmark. “Our yellow press are extremely polite,” the former head of news for the Danish Broadcasting Corporation explains. “Curiosity about celebrities of course exists, but it’s about ‘look at these dresses, look who’s sleeping with whom.’ The aggressive investigation of private life was pretty much unknown.”

Unknown, that is, until Henrik Qvortrup became editor of Se og Hør in 2001.

It is, by now, an old story. With circulation plummeting and ad revenues falling, Danish print outlets—like their counterparts everywhere—were hard-pressed to come up with ways of retaining readers. An aggressive political reporter, Qvortrup brought the same hard-hitting tactics that he used in covering Danish government to the world of crown princes and television presenters. “In the first year of his reign, he more or less said, ‘We’re going after them, we’re going after everybody,’” says Jensen.

The magazine also became one Denmark’s first examples of checkbook journalism after it set up a phone line in which tipsters would be paid—up to 10,000 Danish kroner ($1,800) according to the magazine’s website—for celebrity information. “Obviously,” says Sparre, “He felt a need to give it a stronger profile.”

Strong enough to potentially break the law? Citing the legal investigation, neither Qvortrup nor his former bosses, the Aller company that owns Se og Hør, are responding to press inquiries. But with each day bringing a new set of allegations, two main lines of thought have emerged in the public discourse about what the revelations reveal.

Citing suspicions that Se og Hør might not be alone in its tactics, some politicians have already begun calling for tighter regulation of the media. For those who see the scandal as part of a more general turn to an aggressive style of reporting, Se og Hør’s tactics are about waning of media ethics, one that demands response.

“What we have seen is massive corruption,” says Kasper Fogh, former chief press officer for the Copenhagen municipal government. “Why should we not expect it in other media? Why should we not treat the Fourth Estate with the same skepticism of other branches of government? Why should we not have a system of checks and balances in Denmark that extends to the press?”

Many journalists, however, are nervous that the misdeeds of a single magazine will be used to justify tighter control of the media in general. “I don’t see that the scandal says something about the Danish media culture in general,” says Olav Skaaning Andersen, BT’s editor in chief. “It reveals a sick culture within Se og Hør and a frightening lack of security when it comes to surveillance and data security.”

Within the press, the scandal has been read as another sign of the vulnerability of security systems and the pervasiveness of the surveillance state. Edward Snowden himself weighed in on the revelations in a letter published in the newspaper Berlingske: “Anybody who writes an email in Aarhus, uses a credit card in Odense, or calls their mother in Copenhagen,” he wrote, “will have their private records intercepted, analyzed, and stored not just by unaccountable State Security Bureaus, but even private companies and newspapers.”

That, certainly, is the lesson that Rasmussen, whose book prompted the investigation into Se og Hør’s practices, is hoping for. Mistrustful of email and cellphones, he insists on doing interviews face to face. “The Danish government did nothing after the revelations from Snowden about the NSA. If my little novel can wake the politicians in charge up, so that they slow down the surveillance of their own people, that would be okay.”

Lisa Abend covers European politics and culture from Copenhagen for Time magazine