What the other scandal at Radio Sweden says about failed integration

Richard Orange worked across the corridor from Radio Sweden's Arabic division for nearly a year and was horrified by the way journalists' talents were wasted.

What the other scandal at Radio Sweden says about failed integration
Radio Sweden's journalists primarily do Arabic versions of the main news stories on Ekot. Photo: Screen grab

A few years ago, I worked next door to the Arabic division at Sweden’s public radio broadcaster SR — whose journalists recently caused a media scandal in Sweden for mistranslating “Islamists” as “Muslims” in a string of news stories. 

I, too, was shocked by the journalism they were doing.

But it wasn’t that they were bad journalists: some had been successful TV, radio and print reporters before coming to Sweden; one won a literary award for his comic novel on the nightmare of trying to find a place to live in Stockholm; many have since jumped over to the Swedish-language division and won acclaim. 

No, what shocked me was the way their employer blockheadedly failed to use them to do any real reporting. Swedish public radio has a team of perhaps 50 journalists, speaking Arabic, Somali, Persian, Dari, English, and two dialects of Kurdish.

It’s an extraordinary resource, which the leadership could send out to do bottom-up story-gathering, to find out what was really happening within their communities, to represent them, and reflect a real, nuanced picture back to the nation.

Instead, their job (like ours on the English division) was essentially to just translate the news from Ekot, Sweden’s main news bulletin, and, if possible, to interview Arab speakers who were affected — berörda, in SR parlance.

Sometimes, a journalist or producer from Ekot, or another part of SR dropped in for help with a story involving Arab, Kurdish, Somali or Dari speakers. But this was always on a subject the Swedish journalist already “knew” affected people in the community: topics such as living in Sweden without residency, crime, the various struggles or failures of integration. 

It was such a waste.

For me, this is symptomatic of the bewildering lack of curiosity Sweden has shown more generally towards non-Western immigrants ever since they began to arrive in large numbers in the 1980s. No one has asked them who they are, what they want, or how they want to live.

Just as SR assumes that the role of its Arabic division should be to feed Arab speakers a standard-issue news diet, Swedish society assumes that all new arrivals want the same things they do: an 8 to 4 job with a kollektivavtal, membership of a sports club, home by 5pm to tuck into korv stroganoff with the family, letting loose once a month on the payday weekend.

No one considers that in most cities in the Arab world, as in southern Spain, cafés and restaurants are buzzing at midnight every day of the week.

This is as much a problem on the political left as on the right. How many non-Arab Social Democrat municipal councillors would be able to tell you anything about the differences between Egyptian, Syrian, Iraqi, or Lebanese cultures? How many could name a single Arab pop star or actor?

The left in Sweden doesn’t really believe in culture at all. The Swedish system, the tax agency, the labour market agency, personal numbers, collective bargaining, the whole incredible, productive machine the Social Democrats constructed over 40 years of unbroken rule, for the left, this is simply rational. Immigrants are seen as low-skilled labour that given the right schooling and training, can be fed into the system with the same result as with any other low-skilled labour. Culture is irrelevant. If you don’t get the expected result, that means you need to invest more in schooling and training to improve the input. There are no cultural differences to which the system must adapt.

The right, particularly the populist right, does believe in culture, but shows just as little curiosity, focusing only on the most narrow, obvious and superficial differences: religion, not eating pork, headscarves, the call to prayer. It’s a picture I don’t recognise at all from the people I meet every day in Malmö. 

The Radio Sweden scandal came after Ebba Busch, the leader of the Christian Democrats asked, after riots had swept Sweden over Easter, why, rather than 100 injured policeman, there were not “100 injured Islamists”. Was she privy to police intelligence on the presence of Islamic militants at the riots? Of course not. So what did she really mean? For her (or perhaps just for her intended audience) the borderline between “Muslim” and “Islamist” is pretty hazy, and that reflects a broader ignorance about what concerns and motivates first and second-generation immigrants in Sweden.   

The UK and France aren’t liberal paradises. Boris Johnson’s government just floated a plan to send refugees to Rwanda, and France nearly voted in Marine Le Pen as president. But my feeling is that both are much more culturally literate than Sweden.  Perhaps this is a consequence of our colonial histories. Second and third-generation immigrants in Paris and London have more space to express their cultures, to adapt parts of the cities to their ways of life. Their lives and experiences are reflected in much more varied ways on film, TV series, in literature.

There’s a sense bubbling beneath the surface in Sweden that the immigrants who have come over the last 30 years are ungrateful guests. “We built this amazing society, the most modern, enlightened economic system in the world,” is the attitude. “We let you come here to use it, and you messed it up.”

But being a generous host doesn’t stop at sending out an invitation. Sweden is a bit like someone who invites a newcomer to dinner, shows them around the house, points them to the food on the table, and then locks themselves away in their bedroom for the rest of the night, leaving their guest alone. The country has shown them no interest, made no efforts to make them feel at home. 

Sweden’s Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson has pledged to “leave no stone unturned” in the fight against segregation and failed integration. But I see little sign that this involves approaching first and second-generation immigrants themselves and asking them what they want or can contribute, or, indeed, the slightest bit of introspection. 

Member comments

  1. I can understand the frustration and even anger expressed in the article, but may I venture to say that the situation described is more or less the same, to varying degrees, across the whole of Europe and is hardly unique to Sweden. It is indeed frustrating, with stories for example of doctors who are qualified in their home country, taking menial jobs in Sweden because of poor language proficiency which makes it difficult to become Swedish equivalent-qualified and even downright dangerous if the doctor and patient don’t understand each other properly. Part of the huge corona/covid problem in homes for the elderly in early 2020 was apparently due to the poor or almost non-existent Swedish-language proficiency of some of the staff, who quite simply didn’t understand the new pandemic prevention measures and who couldn’t communicate properly with the elderly residents.

    The article mentions journalists and I’ve mentioned doctors, but of course there are many other professions where immigrants are unable to use their expertise and knowledge due either to language problems or the absence of Swedish-equivalent qualifications. It’s an irritating but very complex situation.

    As for working regular daytime hours and sitting down for some food at home after work, I honestly can’t see what the alternative could be. It might sound boring, but most Europeans live a very similar life pattern as here in Sweden, with only relatively small local variances. Cafés and restaurants buzzing at midnight every day of the week sounds great fun when on holiday, but it just doesn’t exist in northern Europe apart from perhaps in certain districts of major cities. The lifestyle of the Arab world and southern Spain and indeed other southern European countries is mostly due to their subtropical climate and subsequent traditions and has nothing to do with immigration.

    There is a Swedish expression “ta seden dit man kommer” which roughly translates to “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” which indeed can also be applied across the whole of Europe. One needn’t take it too literally, but surely it basically means that one tries within reason to follow the way of life, traditions and laws of the country that one has adopted. And of course it still allows you to eat food prepared in the way you prefer, practice your religion, play music and watch films from your home country, and much more. One says that it takes two to dance the tango, and the huge problem of segregation and integration in Sweden needs both sides to make their contribution.

    Finally, the Radio Sweden story is a bit of a mystery. Translation errors can unfortunately be easily made, particularly under stress or with simultaneous interpreting. But Radio Sweden had time to have their translations double-checked before distribution. They have a massive budget now that the licence fee is mandatory as part of our annual tax declaration. And according to press reports, the Islamist vs Muslim error was made in three different languages, which can only add to the conspiration theories of whether the error was made deliberately.

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OPINION: Don’t be too quick to write off the Swedish model

Every time Sweden makes international headlines, somebody somewhere announces the death of the Swedish model. David Crouch begs to differ

OPINION: Don’t be too quick to write off the Swedish model

“This is epochal, a broken possibility, the end of an era, a place we don’t live in any more.” So writes Guy Rundle, an Australian writer and commentator, about the result of Sweden’s election on September 11. In a similar vein, a French weekly magazine asks: “With this very convincing result for the far right, is this the end of the social-democratic model in Sweden?” 

Almost every time Sweden makes international headlines, for whatever reason, somebody somewhere announces that this is a historic turning point (as did American news outlet CNBC last week), the end of an era and the death of the Swedish model. “The idea of Sweden as a land of equal opportunity, safe from the plagues of extreme left and extreme right, is gone,” wrote Swedish author Elisabeth Åsbrink in the New York Times last week.

If I had ten Swedish crowns for every time someone had pronounced the demise of the Swedish model during my lifetime, I would not be very rich but I would certainly have a large jam jar moderately full of Swedish crowns. 

One of my favourite such declarations is from a man who has a genuine claim to be one of the brains behind the Swedish model itself. Rudolf Meidner was a Swedish economist and one of the co-authors in the early 1950s of the “Rehn-Meidner model” of centralised pay bargaining between unions and employers – seen by many as one of the distinctive foundations of Sweden’s economy, and one of the explanations for its success.

Meidner announced the death of his intellectual baby in an article called “Why did the Swedish model fail?”, written in 1993 after the country had experienced a crippling financial crisis and the free-market Moderates had come to power. “The Swedish system, balancing private ownership and social control, has broken down,” Meidner wrote. Ten Swedish crowns in my jam jar, please.

If anyone was qualified to pen an obituary for the Swedish model, surely it was Meidner. And in 1993, it seemed he had pretty good grounds for doing so. The close relationship between employers and unions that had underpinned post-war economic growth in Sweden had collapsed. 

The atmosphere of consensus and collaboration between the two “social partners” had been replaced by full-blown confrontation. First, in the mid-1980s. the engineers’ union broke away from central bargaining, then, a few years later, the national employers’ federation SAF closed down its central bargaining unit altogether. Kaput. Slut. Done and dusted. 

But behind the scenes, efforts were soon afoot to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. By the mid-1990s, strikes had broken out and salaries were spiralling upwards. Major Swedish companies now changed their tactics, while the government prodded union leaders to reach out to the employers again. The focus had to be on Sweden’s competitiveness, without which there could be no wage rises in the longer term.

The resulting deal between the two sides of Swedish industry, signed in March 1997, set out a shared vision for an economy that could deliver wage rises while strengthening industry by raising workers’ skills. The unions were back centre stage once more, and 25 years later the relationship is still strong. A survey of CEO attitudes to the unions in Sweden in 2017 showed an overwhelming majority in favour. 

While centralised wage bargaining marks an element of continuity in the Swedish model, there is more to it than this. The new model that emerged from the economic wreckage of the early 1990s has other defining characteristics. 

First, it is a shared creature of both left and right, created by political consensus. It is no longer true to say that the Swedish model is social democratic – keen-eyed business people and the liberal centre-right are happy to espouse its key features. 

The model has made it a priority to help women combine work with having a family. Starting in the 1960s from a need to fill a hole in the workforce, Swedish family policy was driven by the notion that sex discrimination is economically inefficient. This system was expanded by liberals and the right. In this century it has acquired a further justification, with governments of left and right espousing feminism as part of a wider ambition to be a beacon for human rights. 

Another feature of the model is the preponderance of industrial owners with a long-term view of business, hardwired through the system of dual shares. Instead of anonymous investment funds or small investors focused on making a quick buck, there are strong owners with a name, responsibility and a clear role. This approach is coupled with a management style that emphasises consensus and involvement. These factors have helped a small country create some of the biggest names in global industry. In the second decade of the millennium, they also combined to create a highly entrepreneurial environment. 

Armed with this understanding of what makes Sweden different, we are better equipped to assess whether the latest change in government will bury an economic model that has worked well for the past three decades, delivering growth, industrial peace and wages that have climbed inexorably since the mid 1990s

Will the new government cut Sweden’s generous parental benefits and encourage more women to stay at home? Not a herring’s chance in a pickle factory. Will it dismantle the relationship between unions and employers? Both sides are fiercely independent and hate government interference. Will it mess around with the ownership structure of Swedish industry? If it ain’t broke, why fix it?

If we cease to see Sweden as social democratic – the Social Democrats have had barely 30 percent of the vote since 2010 – let alone socialist, then we stop thinking that the “Swedish model” is dead simply because the Social Democrats have lost power. The far right’s influence on the new government’s attitude to immigration and immigrants is very concerning, but the Swedish model itself will survive. 

As the Financial Times noted: “Think twice before calling the electoral gains of the nationalist, anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats a dangerous turning point in Swedish and European politics. Democracy and the rule of law in Sweden are not at risk.”

The real task is to use the Swedish model’s strengths to solve the country’s many problems – not to throw the baby out with the far-right bathwater. 

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.