Norwegian Prime Minister’s Taxi Stunt Involved Paid Actors

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Updated: Aug. 13, 2013.

It appears Prime Minister Stoltenberg’s taxi stunt may have been a little less incognito than previously thought. The Norwegian tabloid Verdens Gang (VG) revealed Monday that five of the 14 passengers involved were not random citizens looking for transport, but instead were specially recruited for the video by a production company.

The selected passengers were contacted via a casting call and paid 500 kroner ($85) for their services. While the passengers were not told the PM would be their driver, they were informed that the video would be for the Labour Party, of which Stoltenberg is the lead member.

Officials for both the Labour Party and Try, the firm behind the video, tried to play down the tabloid’s revelations. “They’re five ordinary people who were asked if they wanted to take part in a video for the Labour Party and who knew nothing else, except that they were going to be picked up in a taxi,” said Labour spokeswoman Pia Gulbradsen. “Their spontaneity was real when they realised that the driver was the prime minister.”

Kjetil Try, owner of Try and friend of the Prime Minister, told Verdens Gang that a casting call was required to obtain a diverse array passengers and to ensure that they were available at specific times.

Stoltenberg also defended the use of paid riders, highlighting that no one was told he would be driving the cab. However, the Norwegian PM also emphasized to VG that he was only told about the use of planted passengers after the video was already made.

“I did not know that when the film was made, but I learned that they were paid afterwards,” said the Prime Minister. “That was the decision of the production company. They told me that it is normal, and I trusted them and believed that it must be OK.”

Original story follows below:

From English King Henry V to Haroun Al-Rashid, the ninth-century A.D. Caliph in Baghdad, there’s a rich historical tradition of leaders going incognito in order to find out what their troops, subjects, or constituents really think.

Last Friday, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg joined this illustrious group, disguising himself as a taxi driver in order to get the unfiltered opinions of Norway’s voters. Passengers were not told the identity of the driver, and their reactions were recorded as they complained about government, discussed politics, eventually learned that the cabby they had been speaking with was really the head of their government.

Stoltenberg is serving out his second consecutive term as Prime Minister. In 2011, he made international headlines for his stoic response to the Utoya massacre: a grisly killing spree perpetrated by right-wing extremist Anders Breivik that resulted in the deaths of 77 people. 69 of the dead were teenagers at a youth camp on the island of Utoya.

In a speech to the nation following the attack, Stoltenberg’s re-affirmed Norway’s commitment to its democratic principles: “We must never give up our values. We must show that our open society can pass this test too. That the answer to violence is even more democracy. Even more humanity,” he said.

The taxi stunt comes just weeks before the country’s next parliamentary elections on Sept. 9. Despite being credited with steering Norway through the financial crisis, Stoltenberg’s Labor Party has suffered a drop in support as voters have grown tired of the government’s long time in power. According to a poll published Monday, Labor lags behind its main opponents, garnering 41% of the public support compared to the Conservative Party’s 53%.

Those who entered the faux-taxi largely enjoyed Stoltenberg’s stunt, but did not admire his driving. The Prime Minister had not piloted his own car in eight years, and the rust showed as he bumbled through Oslo’s streets, sometimes stopping abruptly. “I think that the country and Norwegian taxi passengers are better served if I were a prime minister and not a taxi driver,” Stoltenberg admitted afterwards.