STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - The Swedish Academy which decides the Nobel Prize for Literature said on Friday it would not make the award this year because of a sexual misconduct scandal that has caused turmoil in its ranks and led to a string of board members stepping down.
The prize, one of the world’s most prestigious cultural honours, is awarded in early October and a postponement or cancellation has not occurred in decades.
But the usually secretive Academy acknowledged it needed time to restore public trust after allegations against the husband of one of its members and the admission that the names of some prize-winners had been leaked.
The Academy, composed of Sweden’s literary elite, said it aimed to award two prizes in 2019, including the 2018 one.
“We find it necessary to commit time to recovering public confidence in the Academy before the next laureate can be announced,” Anders Olsson, who is interim Permanent Secretary of the Academy, said in a statement.
The turmoil caused by sexual allegations against the husband of one of the board members is unprecedented for the Academy, a revered institution established by King Gustav III in 1786 and still under royal patronage.
King Carl XVI Gustaf led public comment welcoming the body’s decision on Friday. “This decision shows that the Academy now intends to focus on restoring its reputation,” he said in a statement.
Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said it was important that the Academy “now tirelessly continues to work on regaining (public) confidence.”
Though the Academy has courted controversy in the past, for example by awarding the 2016 prize to American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, debate has usually focussed on literary merit rather than the institution itself.
It found itself suddenly at the centre of attention after allegations of sexual harassment and assault were made by 18 women against photographer and cultural figure Jean-Claude Arnault, who is married to Academy member and author Katarina Frostenson. He denies the allegations.
The Academy provided financial support for a cultural club run by Arnault and Frostenson.
Three members of the Academy’s board resigned because of dissatisfaction over the way a probe into the allegations was conducted. The Academy’s head and Frostenson also subsequently stepped down followed by a sixth member last week.
“It think this was a necessary decision, mainly in regard to the legitimacy of the prize,” Peter Englund, one of the six members to have left the Academy in recent weeks, told Reuters in an email regarding the decision to postpone the prize.
The Academy also disclosed that an investigation had shown that the names of some prize winners - the subject of lively betting - had been leaked.
Arnault denies all allegations, regarding both sexual misconduct and leaking the names of laureates, his lawyer told Reuters on Thursday.
State prosecutors opened an investigation into the sexual misconduct allegations, but said in March the probe into assaults alleged to have been committed between March 2013 and April 2015 had been dropped due to a lack of evidence and the statute of limitations having passed for some of the incidents.
Prosecutor Christina Voigt told Reuters on Friday a preliminary investigation concerning Arnault was still underway, but declined to say how many alleged incidents this involved.
The Nobel prizes and the international attention they bring are a source of pride for Sweden and the Academy has promised to improve transparency and bring its ancient rules up to date.
Previous breaks in the annual tradition go back to World War Two. There were no awards between 1940 and 1943, while American novelist William Faulkner received his prize a year late in 1950 when two prizes were handed out.
The Nobel Foundation, which administers the estate of dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel, said the crisis at the Academy had “adversely affected” the Nobel Prize.
“Their decision underscores the seriousness of the situation and will help safeguard the long-term reputation of the Nobel Prize,” the Foundation said in statement.
Arcane rules that make appointments for life have so far meant that the 18 Academy members have not been able to technically resign and the body had already been decimated even before the recent string of defections.
Two members had ceased participating in the Academy’s work over its initial refusal to explicitly condemn a fatwa issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini calling on Muslims to kill British-Indian author Salman Rushdie because of perceived blasphemy in his novel “The Satanic Verses”.
The Swedish King this week changed the rules, making it possible to appoint new members.
Reporting by Simon Johnson, Niklas Pollard, Johan Sennero and Esha Vaish; Editing by Richard Balmforth