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What’s in a name: crime suspects and the Swedish press

The Local’s David Landes attempts to shed some light on the Swedish media’s sometimes peculiar practice of omitting the names of criminal suspects.

What’s in a name: crime suspects and the Swedish press

On Monday, a Swedish appeals court upheld the lifetime prison sentence of Christine Schürrer, a 32-year-old German woman convicted of murdering two toddlers in Arboga early last year.

Astute observers of the Swedish media may have noticed that the following day marked the first time that Sweden’s newspaper of record, Dagens Nyheter (DN), published Schürrer’s name, despite the fact that she had been named previously in nearly every other publication in Sweden, including The Local.

Most Swedish papers waited to publish Schürrer’s name until the day after her guilty verdict was handed down, even though foreign news outlets had been publishing her name for weeks.

For months following her arrest, Schürrer was referred to by the Swedish press simply as “the German woman” or “the 32-year-old” even though her name was readily available in court documents and some had gone to her Facebook profile to find more information.

In short, her name was easy to find, yet newspapers and other media outlets in Sweden continued to write stories as if Schürrer’s identity was some sort of state secret.

And while Schürrer’s guilty verdict, when she went from being a suspect to a convicted criminal, was generally seen as a green light for editors to publish her name and picture, DN nevertheless continued referring to her simply as “the German” right up until Monday’s appeals court ruling.

To readers raised on a different set of journalistic norms, the Swedish practice of withholding pertinent facts about a story may first appear like some odd form of self-censorship.

In its most basic form, news reporting is about telling readers “who” did “what”. According to some schools of media ethics, leaving out basic information like the identity of the “who” amounts to uninformative reporting on the one hand, or deliberate deception on the other.

Moreover, omitting a person’s name from a story can also leave readers wondering exactly what facts the reporter actually has in hand, and what may be conjecture.

While there are many 32-year-old German women in Sweden for example, there is only one Christine Schürrer.

But Britt Börjesson, a professor of media ethics at Gothenburg University, explains that the practice has more to do with Swedish culture than any attempt to alter the truth or muddy the facts.

“Sweden is a small country with a small language and with a tradition of reaching consensus,” she says.

“It’s something in our culture. When television stations or newspapers step over the line [in naming suspects], readers react and complain that it’s not ethical.”

According to Börjesson, the practice of not publishing suspects’ names began as an effort to protect young people accused of less serious offences from long-term public ridicule.

“The point was to give them a chance to come back and become good citizens again,” she says, adding there is a sense in Sweden that keeping criminals’ personal details confidential not only helps against recidivism, but also aids in defendants receiving a fair trial.

While Sweden does have laws protecting individuals from defamation, suits by people claiming that newspapers have violated the law are rare.

Moreover, there are no provisions in Swedish law specifically prohibiting newspapers from publishing suspects’ names.

“It’s not illegal. We just think it’s an expression of proper journalistic ethics,” says Börjesson.

The two main sections of Swedish legislation outlining press freedoms primarily address protecting free speech, and Sweden’s law on personal data protection has exceptions for details published for journalistic purposes.

But the slim chance of facing retribution in a court of law hasn’t kept most Swedish dailies from erring on the side of caution when deciding whether or not to publish names, as instructed by the set of rules outlining accepted journalistic practice in Sweden.

The rules stem from an early attempt at self-regulation first developed by Sweden’s National Press Club (Publicistklubben – PK) back in 1923.

In 1965, the Swedish Union of Journalists (Svenska Journalistförbundet) formally adopted a code of professional conduct, with the Press Ombudsman (Allmänhetens Pressombudsman – PO) being added in 1969 to help adjudicate cases when newspapers were suspected of failing to live up to the ethics code.

The code’s provisions on publishing names are quite clear, admonishing journalists to exercise extreme vigilance.

“Give careful consideration to the harmful consequences that might ensue for persons if their names are published. Refrain from publishing names if it might cause harm unless it is obviously in the public interest,” reads one section of the code, known as “The Rules of the Game” (Spelregler).

Other clauses emphasize the importance of not “violating the privacy of individuals” and refraining from subjecting individuals to undue publicity “unless the public interest obviously demands public scrutiny”.

Börjesson likens Sweden’s press ethics rules to a protocol, the interpretation of which fluctuates over time and which has evolved over decades of discussion in newsrooms and in society at large.

Responsibility for maintaining the code rests with a joint committee consisting of the union, the press club, the Newspapers Publishers Association (Tidningsutgivarna), and the Magazine Publishers Association (Sveriges Tidskrifter).

But while the interpretation of the rules may change, the wording of the rules is rarely altered.

“Their meaning and how they are interpreted can change without changing the actual wording of the rules,” says Börjesson.

She points to the mid-1980s as a time when the pendulum had perhaps swung the farthest away from publishing the names of criminal suspects.

So strong was the resistance among Swedish newspaper editors toward publishing names that they refused to name Christer Pettersson, the man suspected of committing one of the biggest crimes in the country’s history – the murder of then-Prime Minister Olof Palme.

“No one published the name of Palme’s suspected killer until the start of his trial, which was months after he’d been arrested,” explain Börjesson, adding that the decision by Swedish papers to finally publish Pettersson’s name was news in and of itself.

Since then, publishers have relaxed a bit in their interpretation of the press ethics rules.

“Today we print the names and identities of some criminals, usually particularly vicious criminals who are a danger to society. But still, we withhold the identities in most cases,” says Börjesson.

Börjesson also questions how much value Swedes place on learning a suspect’s name.

“What would we do with that information anyway? It’s not interesting,” she explains.

“Why should we care? As a reader, I don’t need to know.”

She admits, however, that there are cases where knowing the name of a suspect is relevant, such as a case involving a teacher at a local school or an offence committed in one’s own neighbourhood.

“But in those cases, there are other ways to get that information for anyone who is interested,” explained Börjesson, pointing to Sweden’s strong tradition of openness with public documents.

Sweden is considered the first country in the world to have enacted modern freedom of information legislation with its Press Freedom Act of 1766.

The act served as the genesis of that what is commonly referred to today as “offentlighetsprincipen” (‘The Principle of Public Access’) which stipulates that “every Swedish citizen has the right to access public documents”, according to the current constitution.

The constitution also guarantees that people who leak confidential documents to the media are protected from criminal charges.

What’s more, it’s the person who undertakes any effort to unmask the identity of a leaker that may instead be subject to prosecution.

Börjesson believes that Sweden’s tradition of openness is part of the reason why publishers resist printing names, and part of the reason why Swedes are so willing to accept the omission.

Before the advent of the internet, publishers of Sweden’s morning newspapers had a special role in the dissemination of information to the public. They were, according to Börjesson, “journalistic guides” for the whole industry and the country.

However, as it has become easier to get information from other sources on the internet, the status of newspaper editors had been somewhat diminished.

But that hasn’t stopped some editors, like Thorbjörn Larsson at Dagens Nyheter, from sticking to traditional ethical principles, even if the practical effect is limited.

“The argument that ‘it’s on the internet, so we should print it’ has been around for 15 years and has yet to gain any traction,” explains Börjesson.

As a result, Swedish newspapers can exercise a great deal of discretion when it comes to deciding what to publish.

According to Daniel Westman, an expert on IT-law at Stockholm University, the new media landscape poses a number of challenges for Sweden’s press freedom rules.

He believes it’s time to consider a facelift for both the journalists’ code of ethics and Swedish law.

“Suddenly we have a situation where publishers should also look at what sort of information other newspapers or individual websites have published with respect to personal information,” he says.

“Currently, the degree to which a publisher is responsible for looking at what others are doing when making his or her own decisions about what to publish hasn’t been dealt with satisfactorily.”

He adds however, that no matter what sort of new rules Sweden eventually puts in place, they may ultimately have little impact.

“If everyone can easily publish information on the internet via servers placed in other countries, then it may eventually not matter which of Sweden’s rules apply because there will be limits to how they can be enforced,” he said.

“At some point, everything will end up on the internet if someone wants it there.”

MEDIA

ANALYSIS: The conservative Swedish news site that crashed and burned

How did a would-be "Swedish New York Times" rise and fall only months after its launch – and what lessons can the media world learn from the story of Bulletin, asks journalism professor Christian Christensen in this opinion piece.

ANALYSIS: The conservative Swedish news site that crashed and burned
Bulletin was marketed as a place where Swedes on the political right could feel at home. Photo: Helena Landstedt/TT

I imagine a Swedish newspaper inspired by the UK’s quality press or their American counterparts – such as the Times of London, the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. Which makes a distinction between news and views, between news and opinion, and which strives to make its readers more enlightened, rather than to pursue an agenda.

These words were published in late December 2020 by Paulina Neuding, editor-in-chief of the newly launched online newspaper, Bulletin. Four months later, Neuding and almost the entire editorial staff, had left Bulletin after a series of embarrassing mistakes, organisational shake-ups and a brutal public conflict with ownership. Taking over as the new editor? A former senior staffer from the New York Times who cannot read or speak Swedish, knows little about Sweden and who will edit the paper from his home in New Jersey.

How did we get here?

Marketing itself as a place where Swedes on the political right could feel at home, Bulletin was created, Neuding wrote last year, to provide “liberal conservative” opinion combined with “evidence-based and neutral” reporting. These comments were made within a very specific context: conservatives in Sweden consider mainstream Swedish media outlets to be predominantly leftist or centre-leftist in ideology. The national public service television (SVT) and radio (SR) channels are particular targets of the right, with steady accusations of leftist bias. Research, however, shows that claims of leftist bias in Swedish news media, including public service broadcasting, are without merit.

So, Bulletin was born. Investors put down around 8 million Swedish kronor (around €800,000); well-known media columnists and personalities signed on to give the site name recognition; and, Swedish media (mainstream and social) gave Bulletin a great deal of coverage and free advertising. If the hype was to be believed, Bulletin could be an interesting case of a new, “high quality” right-wing news outlet entering the Swedish media market.

Despite the PR and hype, however, Bulletin imploded in what can only be described as the most spectacular of fashions.

For all of the lofty talk of inspiration from highbrow Anglo-American publications, Bulletin was always more likely to resemble the anti-immigration Daily Mail Online, or a slightly more serious version of Fox News, than the New York Times or Wall Street Journal. Multiple commentators in Sweden noted that the purpose of Bulletin, rooted largely in the ideology of the primary financiers of the project, was to serve as a messenger for the anti-immigration conservative right.

The content during the early weeks of the publication only confirmed this. Heavy on re-hashed wire service stories and opinion pieces, and thin on actual journalism, Bulletin marked itself with stories and articles centering around immigrants and immigration, and particularly those related to crime and cultural clashes. Evidence of “evidence-based” reporting in the vein of the New York Times was almost non-existent.

But, as it would turn out, low-quality anti-immigrant content was the least of Bulletin’s problems. The outlet was marked from the outset by deep and fundamental structural problems, as well as the presence of owners who saw Bulletin as their own, personal messaging system.

Read more opinions about life in Sweden:

After just two months on the job, Paulina Neuding inexplicably stepped down as editor-in-chief, handing the reins to former columnist Ivar Arpi. As would be revealed later, after discovering that a Bulletin co-owner had published an article on the site without her knowledge, Neuding had the piece removed. The resulting conflict led to her stepping down.

Only a few weeks later, the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published a piece showing that Bulletin had plagiarised over 20 news articles, with material taken verbatim from press releases, wire service articles and even other media outlets. Adding to the crisis, free speech expert Nils Funcke argued in a separate article that Bulletin did not have the proper legal structure in place to offer their sources protection and anonymity; and, in addition, the lack of proper legal structure made those who wrote the stories legally responsible for the content, rather than the publisher (the standard for Swedish news outlets). In short, Bulletin was nothing like an actual news outlet.

At the start of March, the wheels had come off, and open warfare broke out between Bulletin owners and editorial staff. Senior editors accused owners of undermining editorial integrity by using the platform to publish personal pieces without oversight. Owners, on the other hand, accused editors of being both dishonest and incompetent. Publicly. On Facebook. An audio recording was even leaked to the media trade newspaper Journalisten documenting a heated meeting between Bulletin staff and owners. The situation became untenable, and by the end of March editor-in-chief Arpi and several other senior staff announced their resignations.

What are the lessons of Bulletin?

First, the story exposed the fallacy of the idea that if you combine well-known media “personalities” with some money and hype, you can overcome an almost total absence of editorial experience and organisational structure. Bulletin put all of its eggs into the celebrity basket by recruiting famous conservative columnists who had little or no experience either editing a daily newspaper or starting a news organisation from the ground up. The results became immediately obvious to anyone who actually looked at the website.

Second, Bulletin is a classic case study of media owners who think that their investment gives them the automatic right to dictate the content of their outlets. This is nothing new, of course, and owners influencing content – either directly or indirectly – is a feature of many privately controlled outlets around the world. What is unusual in the case of Bulletin, however, is how explicit and how public was the exposure of that tension.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Bulletin is a particularly brutal case study in reaping what you sow. The investors, and many of the media personalities they recruited, made their names by attacking the ideological biases and political agendas of mainstream outlets in general, and public broadcasting in particular, as well as advocating for increased freedom (often in form of the free market) from what they see as an oppressive state apparatus. And what happened? The media personalities ended up working for an outlet that displayed the bluntest forms of corporate bias and owner interference. Those who resigned from Bulletin were not simply victims of aggressive owners. They were, first and foremost, early and willing participants in a media venture that reflected a worldview they had themselves pushed and defended.

That this conservative outlet, which published multiple opinion pieces lamenting the decline of Swedish culture, is now edited by someone sitting in a foreign country who is literally unable to read the stories he publishes is perhaps the perfect conclusion to a tale of media failure.

Christian Christensen is a professor of journalism at Stockholm University in Sweden.

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