The Elections in Sweden 1998 – as a local journalist sees them
A lecture aimed for Lithuanian politicians and students
By Ingemar Lönnbom 1998
The media in the Swedish society
I will talk a lot about the political game, and about how politicians and journalists each play their parts. Let me first of all say that this is a manner of speaking. It does not mean that there is some kind of pact between politicians and journalists in order to delude or deceive the public. See it more like the social rules of a society, the kinds of rules that tell us how to behave at a wedding or a funeral. I am sure a wedding in Lithuania is different from one in Karlskrona, but the result is about the same.
What I mean is that the politicians play their part in the game of democracy; they are elected by the people and are this way handed the power. But the journalists also play an important role. You can see them as the representatives of the people, with a mission to thoroughly follow what happens in the four years between the elections.
The media are a link between the people and the politicians. Or should I say one of many links. As you know some groups of Lithuanian politicians have been in Karlskrona to study our elections and our political system. The reports I have seen are very flattering for us in Karlskrona. The ongoing open and rather polite conversation between politicians from different parties, the direct meetings between politicians and ordinary people have obviously impressed the Lithuanian observers. They have also noted that the political parties make great efforts to reach even the youth that is too young to vote.
In this interaction between the citizens and the politicians, the media plays an important role. It does so in different ways:
1) Media reports on the political development during the time between the elections and makes it possible for everybody to follow the politics; maybe to check that the promises made at the earlier election were kept.
2) Media are of course an important channel for the different parties to make statements and issue their propaganda. But the politicians seldom have the direct control over the media. Even if a political party owns a newspaper, it cannot give exclusive rights to that party. That would be suicide for the paper, and I will later tell you why.
3) Media can also themselves influence what issues become the most important in the campaign. Many journalists feel that this is very important. They want to put difficult questions to the politicians, namely the questions that the ordinary citizen is concerned about.
When is a journalist powerful?
One answer to this somewhat strange question is when the law says one thing and the politicians do something else. This situation has occurred a few times in Sweden in recent years and in some cases they have led to the resignation of members of the cabinet. An important factor is that the law or
standard the politician has broken is deeply rooted in the minds of the people. The combination of free journalism, a well informed and engages public and clearly written, democratic laws are a very good combination as I see it.
The media situation in Karlskrona/Blekinge
Before I start talking on this subject, I must tell you that I am mostly a radio journalist. If my views on the papers seem a bit critical, this is the explanation. But just wait, I will talk about television and radio, too.
The newspapers and their journalists always stress the fact that they are independent. But this is only partly true. In the Swedish countryside, the traditional media situation is as follows: There is one liberal or conservative daily paper, which always is the biggest one. There is often one social democratic daily paper, always smaller than the other, and possibly one paper owned by the centre party, but most of them only comes out once a week. In Karlskrona and Blekinge we have Blekinge läns tidning,
the liberal paper. Then there is a non-commercial radio station and one or more commercial stations. The situation in Blekinge is a bit complicated since the liberal paper is owned by a conservative foundation in Kalmar. The social democratic paper Sydöstran is owned by the local social democratic institutions. We also have a centre party paper, Blekingeposten, which comes out once a week. Its circulation is low: 4-5000 copies.
BLT sells about 35 000 copies every day and Sydöstran about 25 000. A common question is if you can tell from the way news are presented which political party the newspaper supports. If you ask the editors themselves you get the answer that you can only see the political preference on the editorial page. But the truth is, of course, that the political tendency is reflected also on the other pages in the papers. More or less. Let me take an example. This year we have seen some critical views from nurses at our big hospital. As you might know this can easily be made a political issue, since the healthcare is a matter for the landsting, the regional parliament if you like. Now the biggest party, the social democrats, dominates the landsting. How will this affect how the newspapers, with their different political colour, chooses to report? Will Sydöstran write about the protests, although the anger is pointed at the head of the landsting direction, which is a social democratic politician?
The answer is yes, they will write, and willingly so. The competition for more readers makes it impossible for Sydöstran to ignore big protests against the social democratic politicians. The paper would loose all its credibility if the readers for example heard on the radio that the nurses protested against the reductions in the hospitals and nothing was printed in Sydöstran.
Blekinge läns tidning is the biggest paper, but supports one of the smallest parties, folkpartiet the liberals. For this reason, the paper often supports other non-socialist parties in Karlskrona. This is probably why some of the Lithuanian observers made a mistake and supposed it is conservative. But
newspapers are not the only media in Karlskrona.
Radio and television:
Swedish mass communication scholars have found out that people believe they are best informed by the television and least informed by the newspapers. In fact, the truth is that you remember least of what you hear and see on television, and get the best lasting information via the newspapers. But television is a very strong medium (it talks directly to your feelings and not always to your brain) and the politicians are well aware of this. Advertising is not allowed in the National television, channels one and two (Sveriges Television). Instead, the most important way of communicating via television was through interviews and debates. To me as a local journalist it is obvious that television has very little impact on the local issues in Karlskrona. Nationally is a totally different question.
This is due to the fact that the local television is not local enough. If there were a local television station that was broadcasting only to Blekinge the situation would be different. But since most of the regional television comes from Malmö, 200 kilometers away it can never really engage the voters in
Blekinge. There is a commercial competitor in Växjö, at half the distance, but it has far too small recourses.
Remember that the whole province of Blekinge has only 150.000 inhabitants. There are not enough viewers to make it worth while broadcasting in this small area, even though it is technically possible.
So, despite of what the Karlskrona politician Sigurdh R Peterson told the observers from Lithuania, the radio is far more important than the television at the local level. This is the forum where local debates can take place. The local radio has a lot of listeners. Each day, almost 50 percent of the population listen to the non-commercial radio channel four, P4. And further more, the radio show that reflects the most political issues has up to 20 percent, which is very good indeed.
The commercial local radio has not chosen to put much effort into this. The two channels can at the most make some short news bulletins. This is a bit disturbing, since the commercial radio is far more popular among the young people than among the old. I will later come back to this.
How the politicians and media interact
In most cases, the politicians and the journalists are well aware of their different roles in the political game. The politicians are trying to make journalists their personal friends, but have to accept that the journalists ask them difficult questions.
This is also a test of the credibility, if a journalist is not critical enough, and this is obvious, his reports will not be interesting for the readers or listeners. The politician wants his message to be spread, and it is therefor in his or her interest to answer even difficult questions.
Lately some politicians have begun a new approach towards the journalists. When a journalist at a press conference puts a difficult question, the politician starts to address him (or her) with the Christian name. ”Now well Peter, you know as well as I that it is not like that. That question is wrongly put.” This is a very sly and cunning way of disarming the journalist.
This takes away the role the journalist should have. He is no longer a representative of the people, he suddenly is a private person who puts impertinent or even stupid questions. Now, very few journalists lets this treatment put them down, but I feel it is a step away from the democratic fair play. The journalists I know are mostly well aware of the fact that they must lay their own preferences aside in their work.
And they do. Some years ago, a survey showed that a high number of the journalists at the biggest conservative newspaper in Sweden actually were in favour of the left party, the former communists. This has been the case for many years – the papers are mostly liberal or conservative, but the journalists are more to the left than the majority of the people. But in most cases they try to be impartial, to play their part in the game of democracy, and that part is often to put difficult questions to all politicians, also the ones they in their heart agrees with.
A new phenomenon in the elections of 1998 was the personal campaigns. For the first time it was possible for the voter to favour a certain politician by writing a cross by his or her name on the ballot. This caused some disturbance in the otherwise rather traditional campaigning.
To understand this you need to know that there was a similar system at hand in the elections before this one. But then you had to strike out the name of the person or persons you did not like. In practice this method gave little influence for the voter.
A very large percent of the voters had to strike out the same person to make him or her loose the placing. This system for detail democracy was mostly of theoretical interest. Of course, the media publicised if someone was striked out by a large number of people, but I have never heard that anybody lost his place for that reason.
But the new system was trickier. At an early stage some politicians became aware of the fact that the new system created a hazard for the top name on each ballot. Many voters believed that the top name was secure even if they did not put a cross in the box.
But if another name got 8 percent or more this person sailed up to the top. This knowledge created problems especially for the parties that only reluctantly had agreed on this new system for personal voting. They were now forced to campaign, though they in their heart doubted the benefits of the system.
In Blekinge, the most spectacular effect of the new system was that the conservative MP Karl Gösta Svenson from Karlskrona was kicked out of the parliament by the second name, Jeppe Jonsson of Sölvesborg in the other end of Blekinge. It is most likely that this was due to some tension between
the east and the west in the province Blekinge. Some politicians murmured that the media had not informed enough about this possible outcome of the personal voting system. But this is not true. For example had the local radio reports on this at several occasions before the elections and I am sure the papers did too.
The participation in the elections
The Swedish people have had the right to vote since 1921. Before that women were excluded. All this time, the participation in the elections has been extremely high. But in the last years something has changed and almost 20 percent of the citizens stayed at home on Election Day. This is very much for Sweden and was quite a shock for many politicians. Traditionally the social democrats have lost when the participation was low. But this year, a thorough analyse show that if the participation would have been bigger, the social democrats would still have the same lousy result as they in fact did – or even worse. This might explain why the politicians have been very quiet about this dramatic drop in political interest.
I am not the right person to explain why so many people stayed at home on Election Day. But it has been said that the interest is low especially among the young. Of course the media is important in this sense. Maybe the media has not reported enough on what young people are concerned about. Maybe the young people find the democratic process too slow. In recent years the phenomenon of one-issue movements have emerged. This means that people with a strong mutual interest works together for a fast solution of their problem. This has often been the case in environmental issues. One example in Blekinge is the front against the electric cable between Blekinge and Poland. This particular movement failed, the cable will be built. But it is a good example. The people who were opposed to the cable came from all different kinds of background and had different political views. At one point the pressure group became so strong that no politician of any kind dared to stand up against them. It might be of interest for you to know that the Stalinist party was the most eager to join and even take advantage of this popular pressure group. I think Stalin would have built the cable no matter what, he is not known for letting people stand in the way of heavy industry if you see my point.
I am not saying that this kind of movement is antidemocratic. But forces that in fact are against the democratic system can use it. I think the media has an important role to play here. Sometimes journalists tend to forget that every centre of power should be examined. This goes for pressure groups aswell.
The commercial media seems to think that especially young people are not interested in politics. This is a disturbing development, too. If your favourite radio station only plays records, and you manage to avoid everything that has to do with politics and society on the television, who or what will inform you? Many of the young do not have newspapers at home. This is dangerous for our democracy in the long run. The system is founded on the notion that every citizen must inform himself and makes his or her own decision on Election Day.
How the national election influences the local elections
There has been some debate on the question if it is good to have all the three elections at the same time. We have elections for the parliament in Stockholm ”riksdag”, for the regional ”landsting” and for the local ”kommun”. Of course the national election for parliament is the one that attracts most interest. Let me tell you about the visit of Prime Minister Göran Persson, from my point of view, as local journalist. This was the 1st of September, when the observers from Lithuania were in Karlskrona. I was promised a personal interview with him, for ten minutes or so. But what should I ask him, we had a meeting at the radio station where I worked at the moment. We decided not to ask him about the issues that were hot nationally. Instead we choose a question that suddenly had become hot locally – the cable to Poland.
Göran Persson and the minister of social issues Margot Wallström arrived and held their speeches. After this there was a press conference with all the most famous political journalists from Stockholm. They did not ask questions about Blekinge or Karlskrona. I sat and waited for the conference to end so I could get my exclusive. Then something interesting happened. A man in his thirties asked a question about the regulations for alimony. He was obviously a divorced father, who had slipped into the room, though he was not a reporter. The interesting thing is that his question was answered and nothing more happened. Nobody thought much of it. But strictly speaking he was not allowed. But since nobody made a big deal, the incident never disturbed the calm of the press conference.
When it finally was over, Göran Persson was very hungry. He told me I had to wait until after his lunch. I agreed, knowing that I still would have time to edit the interview before the broadcast later that afternoon. So I waited and got a rather good interview, where he was rather good humoured though I had some very odd questions. He followed my line of questions and did not try to avoid them. Our interview with Göran Persson was of interest for our listeners. If they wanted other statements about national politics, they could get them via national media.
I do not know if anybody in Karlskrona was influenced by this interview, but I am sure that nobody would be interested to hear me, a local journalist ask him the same questions as all the reporters from Stockholm.
Now as I said, some people think we should split the dates when the elections are held. I do not think this is a good idea. The local issues are not totally forgotten, on the contrary, if a politician is skilful, he can associate local issues with those of the national politics. And I think we would be very tired of elections if we had one every year. As a matter of fact we have had some extra elections, for the European parliament. The participation there is much lower – and that might depend on certain weariness. People need an election now and then, but not every year. We will actually vote for the European parliament next year. I am afraid it will be hard both for the journalists and for the people to give it the same interest as the national elections.
What will happen in the future?
The media played an important role this election. There was even a new media on the arena, the Internet. Several hundreds of thousand got their information via the web. This will increase in the following years. But the question that might cause some concern is if we are heading towards a division of the society. Now the division is between the well informed and the not informed. This could be a threat to our democracy.
There is a tendency towards a splitting of the media. Soon it will be possible to watch one hundred television channels. Can you still regard them as mass media in the true sense of the word? How many of the Swedish people will choose to totally ignore the political debates and watch comedies and American movies instead? There is already a tendency that young people are less orientated in the politics than before.
But on the other hand, several hundreds of thousands clicked their way to the Internet sites of the different political parties.
The most important thing is that it also in the future must be clear for everybody that politics is something that concerns him or her. The reality is far too complicated to be left only to the politicians – or the journalists for that matter.