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RACISM

Swedish newspapers target racist comments

Several major Swedish newspapers have introduced restrictions to the comment functions in their discussion forums in an attempt to gain better control and limit racism, sexism and personal attacks.

Expressen has decided to close the possibility to comment on articles in real-time discussion forums on its website. Posts will instead be pre-moderated and not removed afterwards as is the current practice.

The newspaper wants to keep a better check on what is being written and hopes to avoid racist comments and personal attacks, the editor-in-chief Thomas Mattson wrote on his blog.

Mattsson and associate editor-in-chief Per-Anders Broberg will be legally responsible for the posts.

Thomas Mattsson explained that he hopes that the new policy will lead to greater transparency and that more people become involved under their full identities.

“The Internet is ripe for the audience, but the audience is not ripe for the internet.”

“It is not an easy decision for a liberal newspaper to state that, for a period of time, it is to limit people’s ability to express themselves, but we must take a responsibility for those that feature in our articles will not be subjected to derogatory comments and that the network does not become a forum covert racism.”

Mattsson argued that there the offenders are a small, but vocal group of anonymous users.

“There is a small group who use the forum which is to publish personal attacks and racist or illegal argument that are contrary to the good tone that all the media are seeking.”

Expressen’s new policy states that for a while there will be fewer articles that readers will have the opportunity to comment on, and that posts will be reviewed before being published.

According to Thompson, the debate over moderating comments has been ongoing for a long time and he expects more media firms to follow suit.

“I think that everyone who sees the potential of the internet considers it a failure that one can not entrust the web users to comment freely because there are a few who abuse the system,” he said.

“Several xenophobic commentators have accused me of censorship and said that the media want to stifle debate on integration policy, but it’s about complying with the laws. It is possible to discuss the integration policy, but without personal attacks and racist comments.”

Dagens Nyheter has also announced a decision to temporarily turn off the ability to comment on articles online. The newspaper will introduce a new log in system in October which will require registration and email addresses and until then all of the discussion forums will be closed.

“It will not be as anonymous as before but it is a threshold in order to raise the level of comments. We have seen that there have been posts that have grossly violated the policy we have. It can, for example, concern racist remarks,” said DN’s editor Gunilla Herlitz.

She expects the number of commentators to be smaller with the new system.

“There will obviously be consequences. At the same time we note that many of the newspaper’s articles are spread in other ways, by sharing on Facebook and other sites so the comment function is perhaps less important,” Herlitz said.

Sweden’s largest newspaper by circulation, Aftonbladet, has also announced restrictions on the freedom to post anonymous comments online.

The newspaper plans to present its new policy on Tuesday, with a statement informing readers that anyone who wants to comment on articles can still do so, but with a log in via their Facebook profile.

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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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