IS SWEDEN SUFFERING FROM OUR WORLD VIEW?

Sweden seems to have suffered a lot of negative press over the last couple of years.  We heard president Trump telling America “look at what happened in Sweden last night!” having watched Fox News.  This was followed by the claim on radio from British right-wing politician, Nigel Farage, that Malmö was the “rape capital of Europe”.  Since then, there has been a huge amount of comment in the run-up to last week’s general election.  As I write, no government has been formed as the two main political groupings are only one seat apart – the last government (Social Democrats, the Green Party and the Left Party) have 144 seats; the four centre-right Alliance parties have 143 seats.  Sitting on the sidelines are the far-right Sweden Democrats with an increased share of the vote, which has given them 62 seats.  As yet, no other party appears willing to deal with them.  The present impasse is caused by neither block being anywhere near the 175 seats needed for a majority.

It was prior to the election that I saw an article in The Local by co-founder James Savage that criticised foreign coverage, arguing that it was giving a false impression of the state of the country.  This also coincided with the publication of Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now by a former editor of The Guardian newspaper in Britain.  Alan Rushbridger was at the forefront of the digitalisation of newspapers and a champion of finding the real truth – hence his interest in the unfounded utterances about Sweden by Trump and Farage.

Obviously, from a foreign press point of view, the big pre-election story was the continuing rise of the Sweden Democrats.  Savage gives a number of examples of uninformed reporting such as Newsweek headlining that a “far-right, anti-Islam party could win a majority in upcoming elections.”  This was patently nonsense.  The New York Times used a piece by a German journalist which claimed the Sweden Democrats had “conquered” Sweden.  The article goes on to show the author had little grasp of Swedish politics in general.  Savage believes a lot of this lack of understanding of Sweden and its society is down to the fact that few media organisations employ journalists based in the country (or speak the language) and fly them in for a bit of quick reportage.  Of course, he points out that there are rounded, perceptive reports from those journalists who know Sweden well, but they often seem to get lost in the negative coverage that portrays a country with escalating crime, floods of immigrants and a society collapsing.

People like President Trump and Nigel Farage don’t help with their ill-informed comments that demonise immigrants and attract huge amounts of attention.  The night that Trump referred to, nothing happened in Sweden.  There was no terror attack or mass shooting.  Farage’s comments were untrue – the implication being that the rape rise was due purely to the rise in immigrants.  Rape figures have declined in Malmö since 2010 despite the influx of immigrants in 2015.  Swedish “sex offence” figures are difficult to compare with other countries because, among the list of offences, they include paying for sex.  Apply that to most cities around the world, Farage’s London included, and they would go through the roof.

Why is there so much misrepresentation of modern Sweden?  Maybe it lies in the recent past.  In the 1950s and 1960s Sweden was seen as a Utopia.  Everyone housed, everyone in work and the inhabitants living a relaxed lifestyle in a progressive society; equality reigned.  This was probably accentuated by the fact that so many Swedes looked good and healthy.  It’s an image that has persisted.  Talking to many of my British friends it’s clear they still see Sweden in that light.  When I mention shootings or grenade attacks in Malmö or the fact that there have been riots, you can see the disbelief on their faces.  Surely not in Sweden!  But Sweden isn’t immune to a changing world caused by globalisation.  The country’s problems aren’t unique.  The welfare state that we were so envious of isn’t what it was.  It’s still better than most, but expectations are raised because of what it was like twenty or thirty years ago.

I suppose crime writers have to shoulder some of the blame.  For a good story we have to look at the less appealing aspects of society and human nature.  Many Swedish novelists use the crime genre as a prism through which to shine light on the changing nature of Swedish society.  This was first done by Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall and carried on by Henning Mankell and his successors.  If it was a perfect society then Swedish crime fiction would be pretty dull.

A recent BBC documentary on the changing nature of the country called Good Sweden, Bad Sweden gave, to me at least, a balanced view of the present state of the nation.  The comments on the BBC website afterwards castigated the BBC for being too liberal.  Many of the views betrayed that anti-immigrant feeling expressed by Trump and Farage.  It was plain that many hadn’t been anywhere near Sweden.  Others, one felt, believed Sweden had let them down because it wasn’t the socialist paradise it should be.  The most sensible comments came from Swedes themselves.  One, saying how refreshing the documentary had been, pointed out that the foreign media either portrays Sweden as a secular and liberal Utopia or a failed multicultural project.  The viewer concluded that the truth is somewhere in between.  It reminded me of a series on British television back in the late 1970s/early 1980s.  They showed extracts from documentaries by foreign broadcasting companies on Britain and the British way of life.  They either showed the Queen, croquet on country-house lawns and strawberries at Wimbledon or a dark, satanic, football-hooligan-ridden country.  The former, few could afford to live in; the latter, few would want to live in.  There were elements of each that I recognised, but neither was the country that most Britons were living in.  Yet both portraits came as a shock that that was how we were being seen abroad.  I expect many Swedes feel the same about their international coverage.

So, I hope the foreign media give Sweden a break and provide more even-handed coverage in the future.  Sweden, for all its imperfections, is still a wonderful, complex, beautiful and fascinating country.  Go and see for yourself!