OPINION: Why can’t foreign media see past Sweden’s far-right?

International coverage of Swedish politics focuses overwhelmingly on the far-right, giving them influence disproportionate to their level of domestic support. Journalism professor Christian Christensen sets out why this is a problem.

OPINION: Why can't foreign media see past Sweden's far-right?
International media must develop a fuller understanding of Swedish politics beyond the rise of the far-right, argues our opinion writer. Photo: Carl-Olof Zimmerman/TT

Anyone who has followed international media coverage of Sweden over the past five or six years knows what interests news outlets about this small nation of 10 million: primarily immigrants, the Sweden Democrats (SD) and Covid-19.

So, when it was announced last month that Prime Minister Stefan Löfven had lost a vote of no confidence in the Swedish parliament, and, a week later, that he had resigned his position as Prime Minister, many could be forgiven for thinking that it was one of those three issues – immigration, the far-right or Covid-19 – that had brought about his downfall.

Yet, it was none of these. The issue that led to the first Prime Minister in Swedish history to be ousted from office before the end of his term was the honest, old-fashioned class issue of rent controls. 

What’s more, the party that had placed the Social Democrats in the corner was not found on the political far right. It was a party with its roots in communism, the Left Party, that had put its foot down over the Social Democrats appeasing (from a Left Party perspective, at least) a centre-right policy in order to maintain support from the Centre and Liberal parties.

So, it was the Left Party, the Centre Party and the Liberals who were at the heart of the disagreement that led to the collapse of the Löfven government: parties that, combined, gained 22.1 percent of the national vote in the 2018 national elections (compared to 17.5 percent for SD), and played a key role in enabling the Social Democrats to maintain power. Yet, these parties have been, and still are, all but invisible in international reporting from Sweden.

In a personal, unpublished study I conducted on US/UK media coverage of the 2018 Swedish elections, I found that Swedish political parties were mentioned by name in these stories a total of 925 times, with SD accounting for 491 (51 percent) of those mentions.

The names of the Left Party, Centre Party and Liberals, on the other hand, appeared a combined 49 times, making up just 5 percent of all political party mentions. And when the leaders of Swedish parties were mentioned by name in these same articles (a total of 283 times), SD leader Jimmie Åkesson, was named the most often, with 124 (44 percent) mentions – almost twice as often as the Prime Minister, Stefan Löfven.

The Left, Centre and Liberal parties again fared badly, with the Left Party leader named 22 times, the Liberal leader mentioned once, and the Centre Party leader, Annie Lööf, never mentioned by name in 80 stories. In the same stories, issues related to immigration, refugees, crime and violence dominated as themes, while economic issues and welfare were conspicuous by their relative absence.

OK. So what? Surely the rise of SD and the arrival of refugees have been the definitive stories from Sweden over the past 10 years, and so it is hardly surprising that (other than Covid-19) they have dominated international news coverage of Sweden during that period? And this is about the economics of news. People living overseas just aren’t as interested in stories about Swedish rent control as they are in stories about immigration and the Sweden Democrats.

Here’s the problem with these positions. 

First, by giving SD disproportionately heavy coverage, that party is given the power, directly or indirectly, to set the agenda for how Sweden is covered. Even negative coverage of SD makes the party’s positions the starting points for discussions. This is particularly true for immigration, where the focus on SD’s anti-immigration stance has meant that virtually no other party’s position on the topic is discussed abroad.

Second, as my relatively simple analysis of US/UK media showed, international coverage of SD is in large disproportion to their popularity among voters, while other parties with cumulative support beyond that of SD are given almost no coverage. When political crises such as the one facing Sweden today materialize, news consumers have little or no ability to comprehend what is going on because they have been fed a non-stop diet of stories that paint a simplistic vision of politics in Sweden, telling them nothing about the intricacies of a multi-party system. 

Third, the huge focus on immigration in the international press clearly tells news consumers that all other issues fall to a distant second in Swedish politics. The collapse of the Löfven government due to a disagreement over rent controls is a stark reminder that Sweden is a country with issues related to class, economics and welfare that have existed before and after the arrival of refugees from Syria. Ironically, these are issues of social democracy central to Swedish political identity that have been lost in a sea of dystopian stories about immigrants.

Finally, it is not the role of journalism to tell the stories that people want to hear. It is the role of journalism to tell people stories they didn’t know they should hear. An overload of stories about refugees and the far-right may sell, but it does nothing to give people the context and background they need to understand the daily reality of political life. The Left Party, Centre Party and Liberals may not be sexy from an international news perspective…but, as we now see, they matter.

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

Member comments

  1. The media also disproportional calls them the “far right” and says they are all nazis and racists.
    The coverage is pretty biased, and essentially destroys the party.

  2. The Sweden Democrats are anti-immigrant . Yet , I believe they are in favor of strong social welfare benefits for Swedish citizens, unlike the Moderata Party that is more of a pro-business , no tax party.

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OPINION: Sweden should welcome Russians who don’t want to kill Ukrainians 

Finland, Poland and the Baltic states are stopping Russians from leaving Russia. It would be a tragedy if Sweden did the same, says David Crouch.

OPINION: Sweden should welcome Russians who don’t want to kill Ukrainians 
An iron curtain is descending across Europe. But in contrast to the beginning of the Cold War, the curtain is being drawn down by EU countries – not Russia. 

Any day now, Finland is poised to ban Russians from entering the country on tourist visas, to keep out men who want to avoid being drafted to fight in Ukraine. Announcing the policy, the country’s foreign minister said Finland was becoming “a transit country for Russians who want to leave their homeland for fear of being forced into war, and this traffic could harm Finland’s international position”. Opinion polls put 70 percent of the public in favour of a ban.

The number of Russians entering Finland doubled following Putin’s imposition a week ago of a “partial” mobilisation of men for the war effort in Ukraine. Finland’s Border Guard service is demanding a border fence 2.5m to 4m tall, topped with barbed wire, to keep the Russians out – an idea that taken seriously by the government.

Our Nordic neighbour is following a trend: the Baltics and Poland have already put an end to visas for Russians, including conscientious objectors to the war. The Czech Republic said last week that Russian deserters will not receive asylum. 

“We see them not as antiwar people, we see them as anti-fighting-the-war people,” Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuania’s foreign minister, told the New York Times. “They were not fleeing Russia when Bucha happened, when Kyiv was shelled or when any other horrific things happened in Ukraine.”

Latvia’s foreign minister chipped in: “Many Russians who now flee Russia because of mobilisation were fine with killing Ukrainians. They did not protest then. It is not right to consider them as conscientious objectors. There are considerable security risks admitting them and plenty of countries outside EU to go to.”

The EU is under pressure from some of these countries to ban Russian tourists, and has already made it much harder for Russians to get tourist visas. But the bloc is divided. Politicians from across the political spectrum in Germany, for example, want to offer asylum to Russian deserters. 

Sweden is starting to debate this question. As a shiny new member of Nato, some Swedes feel we need to show how tough we can be towards the Russian threat. And with a new government keen to stress its anti-immigration credentials, Stockholm may also be tempted to punish Russian travellers because of their brutal government. 

In a situation already tragic beyond the imagination, banning Russian draft dodgers would only add to the tragedy in Europe.

Men of fighting age have been brought up on a diet of state propaganda, pumping nationalism, racism, militarism and hatred of the West into the Russian mainstream. Access to independent and social media has been extremely restricted. Opposition to the “military operation” in Ukraine is punishable by 15 years in jail.

In these circumstances, the mood has changed slowly, fuelled by snippets of official information, incidents such as the death of a friend, social media posts and kitchen conversations. But the steady drip drip of doubt and fear has filled the cup to overflowing. 

Then came last week’s mobilisation, and the pace of change accelerated. Family men without military experience are being dragooned into the army and sent to the front line. A wave of anger has swept across the nation, with arson attacks on army recruitment offices, thousands of arrests and a revolt in Dagestan. The country’s security service itself says 261,000 men fled Russia in barely a week. At one point there was a queue of cars 13km long at the border with Kazakhstan.

For EU nations to turn away Russians who don’t want to fight in Ukraine is to abandon them in their hour of need. At they very moment when they are most open to alternative facts about the war in Ukraine, we would conform to the Kremlin’s propaganda picture of the West as hostile, self-interested and Russian-hating. 

Denying draft dodgers the right to get out of Russia means painting them all as representatives of an enemy with whom we are at war. There might be some short-term political benefits in terms of “uniting the nation”, but this would leave a deep scar on the European psyche.

The debate in Europe has not gone unnoticed in the White House, where the US National Security Council has cautioned against seeing all Russians as universally responsible for the disaster in Ukraine. 

“We also continue to believe it’s important to draw a line between the actions of the Russian government and the Russian people,” a spokesperson told the Financial Times. “We wouldn’t want to close off pathways to refuge and safety for Russia’s dissidents or others who are vulnerable to human rights abuses.”

Sweden has a history of welcoming men who don’t want to fight in unjust wars. Between 1967 and 1973, Sweden granted asylum to around 800 Americans fleeing the Vietnam war. Fifty years later, the decision by the European Court of Justice that Syrian draft dodgers can claim asylum in Europe gives Sweden the legal basis to extend this right to Russians.

What is happening now in Russia could be the beginning of the end of the war in Ukraine, and of the Putin regime. Sweden should welcome with open arms all Russians who would rather get out than be sent to kill Ukrainians. And we should pressure other EU countries to do the same. 

It is likely that Russia will soon close its own borders to stop men from escaping. But let’s not give them an excuse to do so. 

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.