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Swedish General Election 2002

Media Coverage

Parties which are outside the centre-left/centre-right consensus, even though not necessarily particularly hard left or right find it difficult to get access to the media whether in its news coverage or advertising space. The high cost of newspaper and journal distribution through the PressByran network which appears to have an effective monopoly on retail outlets for news and current affairs makes marginal viewpoints still more marginal in Sweden.

The Swedish Democrats complain that their attempts to place advertisements have been boycotted by the news media. According to the Swedish Democrats some media refuse their materials point blank, while others invoke their need to show solidarity with an informal media “blackout” of the “extremists”. Private media may have the right to pick and choose whom they permit to advertise, but when nationwide public organisations like Swebus choose to provide a platform for some but not other legal parties then the fairness of the campaign may be drawn into doubt.

Similarly when municipal authorities and other public entities refuse permission to use town halls or other public buildings to properly listed parties they infringe the equality of competition among candidates who are al citizens after all. Would it not be better to leave it to the voters to decide whom to support and whom to ostracise?

A survey of the Swedish media routinely available in Gothenburg conducted with the aid of a local resident suggests very strongly that divisive issues are largely confined to the letters pages of the print media. However, representatives of the so-called extreme right or left rarely get a hearing except when they are exercising a statutory right of reply.  while Swedish television (SVT) broadcasts remarkably non-confrontational election broadcasts. The broad consensus among the established parties limits the heat of political debate.

However, another phenomenon which reduces political confrontation on television and radio is the adoption of post-modern methods of reporting and questioning politicians.

Several local observers drew the BHHRG’s attention to the use of studio lay-outs more appropriate to mid-morning talk shows discussing  fashion or gardening than the government of the country or Sweden’s role in the world.

The Group’s observers saw several examples of interviews with prominent politicians conducted in the relaxed atmosphere of a talk show promoting the memoirs of a popular footballer or hairdresser. This does not make for the kind of interview which draws out politicians’ policies and exposes potentially unpopular aspects. Indeed to the contrary, controversy tends to be avoided and a synthetic consensus created for the viewers, who are in fact voters presumably trying to make up their minds on whom to choose as their representatives.

A good example of the elision of real debate came with the appearance of the Liberal leader, Lars Leijonborg, on the comfortable chairs of a SV discussion fifteen days before the poll. Mr. Leijonborg had appeared to stir controversy over immigration. Sweden’s post-war reputation as an exile-friendly state had encouraged up to  50,000 people a year to seek asylum there, especially from war-torn ex-Yugoslavia in the 1990s and from the Kurdish areas of Turkey and Iraq. Mr. Leijonborg simultaneously proposed that migrants seeking naturalisation should have to speak Swedish while at the same time proposing to permit more immigration (up to two million migrants over the coming two decades) provided they had a firm job offer. Such people could qualify for citizenship after five years (only being able to initiate the application after three years of residence. Otherwise they would be merely guest workers and could be returned to their country of origins if their job disappeared (as scores of thousands of jobs in Sweden have done with the downturn in the country’s once booming telecoms and engineering sectors).

Given the obloquy heaped on the extra-parliamentary Swedish Democrats and the more militant National Democrats for their anti-migrant stances one might have expected Mr Leijonborg and his Liberals as well as the Moderates who took up similar proposals to come under attack or be at least put on the spot in the media. After all, leaving aside any language test and ability to return jobless migrants, any influx of skilled workers might be expected to force down wages and salaries and offend the traditionally left-voting workers.

Mr. Leijonborg appeared in his “sofa debate,” moderated by a skilled TV professional of non-traditional Swedish appearance (a glamorous ethnic Indonesian from her appearance) while he was “confronted” by beautiful lady of Greek ethnicity, though naturally a Swedish citizen. The appearance of Mr.  Leijonborg’s female interrogators seemed intended to make the case for a multi-cultural Sweden as much as any arguments.   This condescending  combination of sexism and racism in the cause of liberalism might well alienate ordinary viewers, whose interest might have been more intellectual and policy-orientated.

TV Pink in Milosevic’s Yugoslavia pioneered this type of post-modern political dialogue as beauty parade. This Group’s observer saw an interview conducted by a scantily clad lady on a white leather sofa with the leader of the Serbian Radical Party, Vojislav Seselj in Belgrade in 1997. Style over substance can disguise sinister social phenomena, but at best it dulls the critical senses of an audience, or irritates it. Neither can contribute to debate of the issues.

Mr Persson has stated publicly that on the issue of immigration he is glad that the Social Democrats are more restrictive than his right-wing rivals since the SAP does not advocate loosening Sweden’s immigration policy nor does it propose testing the “Swedishness” of candidates for citizenship.  Some people may see this confusion of right and left as typical of post-modern politics, but the fact that the Left can appear right-wing in its restrictiveness and the Right can be superficially left in its openness to more immigration merely suggests how narrow the spectrum of parliamentary politics in Sweden is.

One SVT report raised the question of whether the established parties who publicly condemn the Swedish Democrats, for instance, were not infused with similar anti-immigrant sentiments and were prepared to voice them to voters “off camera.” A hidden camera caught both Moderates and Social Democrats making un-orthodox comments to journalists posing as voters visiting their “election huts.” Maybe the established parties are quietly fishing for votes in the troubled waters of migration and asylum issues recognising a broader public unease than the existing Riksdag parties admit in their public broadcasts.  Sweden, of course, is not the only EU country where attitudes to immigration and asylum are mired in hypocrisy and opportunism.

A spokesman for SVT’s editorial board wrote to one of the Group’s Swedish colleagues explaining the TV news’s criteria for including parties in the news. To be mentioned they need to be “relevant”, i.e. approaching or above 4%. The spokesman emphasised that SVT had a duty to promote democratic values and so the use of negative adjectives to characterise parties like the Swedish Democrats as “xenophobic” was appropriate.