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Sweden’s election is being misreported abroad – and this is a problem

Bad foreign reporting on Sweden's election risks giving readers around the world a false impression of the state of the country, argues The Local's co-founder James Savage.

Sweden's election is being misreported abroad – and this is a problem
Election posters in Stockholm. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

On Sunday I will cover my fourth Swedish election night for The Local. The contrast with the first one in 2006 could not be greater.

Then, the Social Democrats were set to be swept away by a newly-unified centre right after a 12-year unbroken spell in power. Their 70-year status as the star around which the rest of Swedish politics orbited was at an end. 

A significant election, but the rest of the world mostly looked on and shrugged. In London, a few Guardian columnists mourned, but not much more than that. 

What a difference a decade makes. The rise of the Sweden Democrats – and the obvious parallels to Trump, Le Pen and Brexit – means the attention focused on Sweden is out of all proportion to the country's size. Yet the decline of the foreign correspondent means that few media companies employ journalists who know anything about Sweden, let alone live here or speak the language. 

Imagine a journalist covering a US election who arrived in Washington a week before, had paid no attention to US politics for the preceding four years and didn't speak English. You now have a picture of many of the foreign journalists covering Sweden.

Combine this with the pressure to chase clicks and the result is dire: simplistic, sensationalist journalism that is frequently just plain wrong.

Last month, a Newsweek report screamed that a “far-right, anti-Islam party could win a majority in upcoming elections”. The party in question is the Sweden Democrats – currently polling between 17 and 24 percent, so at least 25 points short of a majority. The headline was simply untrue, but the article is still up.

Likewise, the New York Times published an op-ed by a German journalist that claimed that the Sweden Democrats had 'conquered' Sweden. The piece, like so many others, goes on to paint a dystopian picture of Sweden that is at odds with the experience of most people living here. A few anecdotes about gang violence in the suburbs leave the reader with the false impression of a society in decay, a point made well by Stockholm-based American journalism professor Christian Christensen.

The author goes on to betray his weak grasp of Swedish politics by stating that the Sweden Democrats “might end up in government” on Sunday (something that is not even remotely likely). He adds that SD success “makes a coalition government between the Social Democrats and the Moderate Party unlikely” (a nonsensical statement), and then speculates that the Social Democrats and Moderate parties might split as a result of the election – something that nobody who has observed Swedish politics could possibly assert.

Not all the reporting is bad – some pieces, often by journalists who know Sweden well – are very perceptive and well-researched.

Unfortunately though, the poor examples are all too typical. Dire diagnoses of the state of Sweden permeate almost every article about the election. You expect this from hyper-partisan sites like Breitbart or state propaganda like Sputnik, but mainstream media outlets are repeating the same tropes. 

Yet amid all the talk of crime and immigration and societal collapse, readers are rarely told that Swedes are equally exercised by humdrum issues such as healthcare and schooling. They could easily miss that Swedish politicians have reached a broad consensus on a restrictive migration policy and on the need for criminal justice reforms. They could also be forgiven for not realizing that much Sweden Democrat support is caused as much by economic factors and regions that have lost their sense of purpose as it is by immigration. Most importantly, they could be forgiven for not realizing that while there's a chance the next government will do a deal with the Sweden Democrats to get its budget through, it will almost certainly not include Sweden Democrat ministers.

There's no doubt that this is an extraordinary election in Sweden: politicians' handling of the 2015 migrant crisis was disastrous. They looked helpless in the face of gang crime, shootings and arson attacks in some areas. They also underestimated the number of Swedes who were natural cultural conservatives sceptical of globalization, feminism and climate change. Politicians here are worried that a high score for the Sweden Democrats will make forming a government hard. But foreign media currently reporting here are presenting a picture of Sweden that exaggerates the problems and misrepresents the facts – and this does their readers a disservice.

Member comments

  1. I’m not sure why the author thinks it is “nonsensical” to suggest that the Social Democrats and the Moderate Party might have problems forming a coalition or that “nobody who has observed Swedish politics could possibly assert” that the Social Democrats and the Moderate party might split. That’s almost exactly what last week’s article on this topic in The Local argues. (See August 28 article by a Swedish political scientist, “What Sort of Government Might Sweden Have After the Election”)

  2. Foreign journalists are not too far off the mark when they suggest a right wing movement in Sweden – up to a quarter of the voting population might vote SD!!! However, two examples in Europe make this tricky to predict what the actual vote will be. First the Austrian re-vote reversal which elected a far right candidate and second the French vote which on the day changed Le Pen’s pre-election rise into a damaging loss for her party. Assuming no other party want to pair with the SD and they get 18% (current poll of polls estimate) the S+M estimate of 41% (same poll of polls) will have 50% of all the remaining party seats giving a viable minority government but with some risk of losing battles if the remaining parties close ranks on some issues. Not sure if my ‘non-Swedish’ views make sense so happy to hear alternative scenarios. Btw I am not a Swedish citizen and although having lived here and paid taxes for 14 years I have no right to vote in the general election. So much for equality…

  3. From my US perspective the NYTimes Bittner piece was clearly labeled as opinion, not coverage of the election. Calling this misreporting is grossly inaccurate. The problem as I see it is lack of reporting and an excess of opinion.

  4. You mean like the Swedish media never reports that crime rate has risen exponentially since they started letting in mass amounts of immigrants?

  5. Hi John,

    First I would like to remind you that The Local was started by immigrants for immigrants, so please remember to be courteous. We do not accept comments that paint groups of people with the same brush and sound like they are implying that our readers are criminals.

    Secondly, here are some facts about crime in Sweden:

    In 2017, around 1.5 million crimes were reported to the police (that includes everything from petty offences to serious crimes), or around 15,000 per 100,000 citizens (fewer than in 2015). If you go back ten years, it’s 1.3 million in 2007 or 14,300 per 100,000 citizens. If you go back another ten years, to 1997, around 1.19 million crimes were reported or 13,500 per 100,000 citizens. Reported crimes have been on a steady, but not exponential, increase since 1975. Source: http://www.bra.se

    Looking at deadly violence, this is at around the same level as that of the early 1990s. In the years 2010-2014 on average 80 people a year were the victims of deadly violence, compared to 95 people a year in 2000-2004 and 107 a year in 1990-1994. Last year, the figure was 113, but in the past two decades the population of Sweden has increased from fewer than 8.9 million to more than 10 million, so deadly crime actually affects a smaller proportion of the population today.

    The Local has written quite a lot about this, for example here: https://www.thelocal.se/20180327/swedens-lethal-violence-stats-for-2017-detailed

    Thanks for commenting,
    Emma Löfgren, Editor, The Local Sweden

  6. Sure I will totally believe you when you say gun violence and drug trafficking are done by ethnic swedes. (Note the sarcasm)

  7. By the way, did they ever find out who burnt all those cars in Gothenburg? Or is that one of the things the Swedish media choose not to report?

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Like having sex in church: Sweden’s uptight attitude to alcohol

Swedes have a deeply suspicious attitude towards alcohol, embodied in the state monopoly on its sale. Although ridden with guilt and hypocrisy, it is a healthy relationship, says David Crouch

Like having sex in church: Sweden’s uptight attitude to alcohol

Those boxes by the checkout sum up my problem with Systembolaget, Sweden’s chain of state-owned liquor stores. The boxes are called ångravagnar, from ångra, to regret. “Psst,” says the sign over each one. “Have you changed your mind? Here you can put back any drinks you don’t want to buy.”

The boxes are there to make you think again – do you really need all that booze? Won’t you hate yourself if you don’t put back a bottle or two? 

The regret boxes seem to serve little practical purpose, because they are almost always empty. Instead, they are there to send a message, whispering “Psst!” in your ear: “Don’t do it! Alcohol is wicked!”

Smiling assistants lurk around the stores, in theory so you can ask them what wine goes best with your food. Nonsense – they are the morality police, another “psst” in your ear. Talking to them feels like going to confession: forgive me, Father, for I am about to sin. Then there are all the TV ads for Systembolaget depicting toddlers being abused by drunken parents, or pious staff saying their aim is to sell less alcohol, not more

As a result, entering Systembolaget feels like having sex in church: a shameful pleasure. Here you cease to be an adult capable of taking decisions for yourself and instead become a wayward teenager who needs to be shepherded towards acceptable behaviour.  

Systembolaget – abbreviated to Systemet, or “the System” – is the embodiment of Swedes’ deeply suspicious attitude towards alcohol. It is institutionalised guilt on national scale. 

This guilt has historical roots. Sweden once had a serious alcohol problem. A century ago, average vodka consumption reached almost a litre a week for every man, woman and child. For decades, the country battled to find a way to bring down consumption, first with rationing and then the state monopoly from 1955.

The guilty view of alcohol lives on in all sorts of ways. Sweden, a nation renowned for embracing modernity and liberal freedoms, still has a significant temperance movement. The snappily named Independent Order of Good Templars has 24,000 members – more than most of Sweden’s political parties – and believes that Systembolaget should close at 5pm and be shut altogether on Fridays and Saturdays. 

In Britain, for example, politicians like to pose with a drink to show they are “of the people”. This could never happen here. I once went campaigning with a political leader in the run-up to elections, and we needed somewhere warm afterwards for an interview. But she declined to enter a convenient bar in case she might be photographed in a place selling alcohol. 

Quite apart from the System’s restrictive opening hours, there are very few stores – just 450, or one per 23,000 people. Until very recently, there were more golf courses in Sweden than places where you could buy a bottle of wine over the counter. (There are 449 golf courses, down from 454 in 2019.)

A recent opinion survey has compared attitudes to alcohol in the Nordics. Sweden emerges clearly as the Nordic nation that is the most uptight about alcohol. Fewer than half (45%) of Swedes say it’s okay occasionally to get drunk; one in five say it is even wrong to get drunk at a party. Finns and Danes come out as far more relaxed about booze. 

There is a whiff of hypocrisy here. In my experience, the best way to liven up a social gathering in Sweden is to uncork the gin and let it flow copiously. Not so long ago, a former government minister responsible for raising the tax on alcohol became so inebriated (berusad) at a party in the Stockholm archipelago that he exposed himself to the female guests. 

And yet, Sweden’s relationship with alcohol is a healthy one. Systembolaget is popular among Swedes, its reputation exceeding that of well-loved brands such as IKEA, Volvo or Spotify. More than three-quarters want the state monopoly on alcohol to remain in force, while only 18 percent say they want wine and spirits to be on sold in other stores

Despite its faults, Systembolaget represents society taking collective responsibility for a drug that has the potential to cause great harm. After decades of free-market liberalism across the globe, it is easy to forget that societies once behaved like societies, instead of leaving everything to individuals and the interplay of supply and demand. 

How refreshing that young people are not bombarded with advertising telling them they need booze to gave a good time. Living here, you would never have any idea that the country supplies the world with that supreme party drink, Absolut Vodka. Consumption is ticking downwards, and fewer than 3 percent of Swedes drink every day

When I see those regret boxes, part of me wants to scream: “Regrets?! No way! It’s been a hard week, let me get wasted in peace.” But the boxes are the price I have to pay for the comforting knowledge that, in this aspect at least, Swedish society takes responsibility for its citizens’ welfare. I don’t like it, but I accept that it is necessary. It is not ideal, but it works. 

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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