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Newspaper rich lists: public service or invasion of privacy?

Paul O'Mahony · 6 Feb 2009, 10:33

Published: 06 Feb 2009 10:33 GMT+01:00

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Every winter Swedish tabloids and local newspapers splash the front pages with their annual lists of “The highest earners in your region”, “your town” or “your block”, depending on where you happen to live.

It’s a time-honoured tradition that never fails to get cold hands reaching for hard cash. But for newcomers to Sweden, it can be dizzying to grasp that the mere fact of having more money than your neighbours somehow catapults you into the public domain. After all, in countries with more wide-reaching confidentiality legislation, nobody need ever know that you’re the cat that got the cream.

Not surprisingly, the wealth charts make for popular talking points up and down the country. But what about the people named in the rich lists: are Sweden’s wealthiest denizens content to have their comparative wealth aired in the public arena? Speaking to people on the lists from ten different Swedish towns, The Local encounters a groundswell of resistance among those immediately affected.

Businessman Hans Ståhlgren, for instance, is blissfully unaware of his listing in the Aftonbladet tabloid as the fourth highest earner for 2007 on the opulent Stockholm island of Lidingö. His main gripe concerns the relative unwillingness of the Swedish press to publish the names of convicted sex criminals lest they be subjected to the wrath of the general public.

"It feels awful. No one will publish the names of sex offenders and other types of criminals: it's ‘23-year-old’ this and ‘24-year-old’ that. But I can't just put a jacket over my head to protect my identity."

He wonders why he, a law-abiding citizen, is not at least afforded the same courtesy.

"I think income is a private matter and publication can only harm the people in question," he says.

"I have absolutely no interest in being in the public eye and just can't understand the news value."

On the surface it might seem that Sweden is at ease with the principles underpinning public access to official documents, which enable newspapers to easily compile their lists. But underneath lurks a deeply divisive debate about money, identity and the right to privacy.

The Swedish Tax Agency, the Journalists Union, newspaper publishers and academics are all major players in an age-old discussion that began to gather fresh momentum as the exponential growth of the internet suddenly meant that personal data was just a few mouse clicks away.

Aftonbladet, for example, Sweden’s largest circulation newspaper, allows subscribers online access to the income and capital surplus details of the richest people in every municipality in the country. And you don't have to be rolling in riches to make the papers. In Arjeplog (pop. 3,000) in the far north of Sweden, the tenth wealthiest person on Aftonbladet's list was worth less than half a million kronor ($62,000) in 2007.

Mats Sjöstrand, Director-General of the Swedish Tax Agency (Skatteverket), finds himself in the eye of the storm. He acknowledges that income lists are “a worry” and is concerned that his agency is being attributed the blame for privacy violations, since it is the source of the information.

In a bid to “sound the alarm” about abuse of the agency’s databases, Sjöstrand had an article published recently in Sweden’s newspaper of record, Dagens Nyheter, calling on the government to allow people to choose to have their details removed from the agency’s bulk dispatches.

In practice, allowing people to take themselves off the agency’s mass mailing lists would give individuals more power over their own data while also making life considerably more difficult for the sort of online credit rating sites Sjöstrand has long opposed. Since the proposed move only relates to the distribution of bulk data, it would preserve the Principle of Public Access (Offentlighetsprincipen) while also helping to prevent its abuse, he argues.

“I’ve had two types of reactions,” Sjöstrand tells The Local. “Some people think it’s a fantastic idea. Others, including quite a few journalists, think I’m an idiot for even suggesting it.”

Sjöstrand says he is all in favour of Sweden’s famed policies of openness being used to keep tabs on people in positions of power, himself included.

“But the problems we are seeing arise from a collision between the Principle of Public Access and privacy safeguards,” he says.

“With people able to sit in front of their computers and search through a register with a few clicks on a mouse, neighbours can keep a close eye on each others’ dealings. This isn’t Big Brother watching Little Sister. It’s Little Sister watching Little Sister - a different sort of privacy violation to the ones we are used to discussing, but a privacy violation nonetheless.”

Agneta Lindblom Hulthén, Chairwoman of the Swedish Union of Journalists, couldn’t agree less.

“Over the last ten to fifteen years there have been repeated attempts to restrict access to public documents, which has made journalists’ work considerably more difficult at a time when we are faced with increasing time constraints.”

“We often hear the integrity issue used as an argument against publication [of rich lists], but I just don’t accept that argument at all.”

Hulthén says she has little sympathy for wealthy citizens thrown against their will into the public arena.

“I can see how it might be problematic to earn too little money but there’s nothing shameful about earning a lot of money.”

This is a recurring sentiment among supporters of the prevailing order. But does making money really not matter in a country where sticking out from the crowd has long been taboo?

"In small towns, the Jante Law reigns supreme," says Elisabet Ellebo, the former owner of a chain of clothing stores and the third highest earner in Gävle (pop. 69,000) in 2007.

"People judge you on what you earn without necessarily seeing how much work you have put into a company, with all its ups and downs."

Dominic Power, Professor in Economic Geography at Uppsala University, elaborates on Ellebo's point, arguing that income and wealth are, for better or worse, inextricably linked with a person’s identity and may enable people to make “grossly unfair judgments about your worth and role in society”.

“I worry that disclosure of incomes, whether they are very high or very low, allow people to be pigeon-holed in a way that overshadows and forecloses individuals’ right to freely form and express their identity and opinions as they will.”

Like Mats Sjöstrand, Power argues that a certain measure of income transparency can only be a good thing when dealing with politicians and public officials. But he also wonders if “disclosure of income might not lead within organizations or firms to a politics of envy and simplistic evaluation that undermines incentives and workplace relations.”

Another point that seems to tally with the experiences of The Local's rich list respondents is Power’s fear that “ease of access to a combination of different data sources, including income, could open the individual to all sorts of potential forms of targeted crime.”

A high ranking earner from a mid-sized Swedish town, who agrees to speak only on condition of anonymity, says he has seen first-hand how people listed can come to harm.

"There is no doubt that this puts families at danger. I have acquaintances who have had to employ bodyguards after their income details were published," he says.

Story continues below…

Agneta Lindblom Hulthén and Kent Asp, Professor in Journalism at Gothenburg University, counter that criminals don’t need to read the newspapers to learn all they need to know about the wealthier residents in a particular neighbourhood.

“There’s no reason to see this as a moral or ethical issue when the information is already public,” says Asp.

And why tamper with a principle that has served the country well since 1766?

“This is the system we have chosen in Sweden as a sort of bulwark against corruption, and in my view the positives outweigh the negatives,” says Asp.

Niklas Bodell, Communications Manager at Aftonbladet, says he has “a certain understanding and respect” for people who see the lists as a breach of privacy.

And Bodell admits that each time the lists hit the front pages the paper receives its fair share of negative reactions.

“Critics often accuse us of propagating a form of ‘envy journalism’ or ‘keyhole journalism’,” he says.

“But ultimately, the decision to publish the lists comes back to the Principle of Public Access and defending democracy.

“Rather than being shocked that such lists can be published, one should maybe be impressed that we live in such an open society,” says Bodell.

Paul O'Mahony (paul.omahony@thelocal.com)

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