All posts by larsschaff

Reporting without proportions

2011-03-14 Monday
My daily reflections on this website have often – maybe too often – something to do with the writings in Dagens Nyheter. The reason is nevertheless quite natural since DN is the leading newspaper in Sweden and thus sets the agenda for a large part of the discussion. I should add that there is an overwhelming majority of center-right, what we call “borgerliga” (bourgeoisie) papers and that the Social Democrats control a shrinking number of newspapers with minute circulations and based mostly in smaller cities around the country.

In spite of the center-right dominance, media is often accused of harboring too many leftist (liberal, in US terms) journalists, which is a gross exaggeration, probably used mostly as an attempt to defend a disproportionate reality. Anyhow, since we have a tendency to point at the top, Dagens Nyheter has got the role of leading the herd.

We noticed in yesterdays DN a stunning blindness for the mass deaths and for the suffering people in Japan, in favor of an unmotivated fixation on the operational problems in a nuclear plant. Today the editor in chief seems to have sobered up, and the real and horrendous catastrophe in Japan was reasonably reported on. Only two pages were spent on the nuclear issue, mostly reporting that the problems are probably no problems… but on the other hand it’s leaking here and there, and you never know… etcetera.

Misconceptions, myths, sensationalism, and ignorance about facts are inherited from the last nuclear incident in a way so consistent that it must be considered intentional. If I should be wrong here, there is a heavy burden of proof for those who refutes that claim.

The terrible catastrophe in Japan – and then nuclear energy

2011-03-13 Sunday
Our sacrosanct newspaper DN spends eight full pages of today’s edition to increase the feelings of catastrophe with regard to the damaged nuclear plant in Japan. On the really dead, and the suffering people, they spend much fewer words.

A large majority of Swedish journalists have for many years had a horrified attitude towards nuclear energy. The main purpose of that is self-evident. To intimidate readers by creating fear is supposed to be a positive market factor. People are supposed to buy more papers if the head-lines are really terrifying. The rational for that beats me, and I’ve never seen any empirical studies which supports that seemingly crazy idea. Still it is constantly practiced.

On this website I have written a good deal in Swedish about nuclear energy, for instance about the UNSCEAR 2000-study, conducted by an expert committee formed and monitored by the United Nations. The committee’s conclusions implied in fact that almost all popular media reports about the nuclear accident in Chernobyl had grossly overestimated the harm done by radiation. Most suffering and premature deaths was caused by the evacuation of large populations and the social catastrophe for many people that followed.

During a conference in Davos, Switzerland in 2008, the following numbers of deaths in accidents directly associated with a specific energy source was reported:

The nuclear death toll disappears in the diagram, because it is only 31, and that is from Chernobyl. I believe this diagram deserves some contemplating thinking.

Media at work

2011-03-12 Saturday
The sad but most important news today is of course the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. We can just embrace the suffering people in our thoughts and hope for the best. And also wish that help with the rescue work will come from all parts of the world.

The domestic news were somewhat overshadowed today, but Dagens Nyheter continued their sour remarks about the candidate for leader of the opposition party. The front page was headed by:

“Juholt keeps silent about the choice of direction for S”

(S is short for Social Democrats), followed by: “Exactly what the coming party leader Håkan Juholt thinks about the future of the Social Democrats in shrouded in mystery”.

Everyone knows that a candidate cannot speak for the whole party, or reveal any of his plans as a party leader, until he is really elected (every party member has de facto the right to challenge him for the job at the convention). For those who happens to be ignorant of that elementary circumstance it is repeated by the candidate every time he is asked those questions. So DN’s purpose is of course not to inform but to cast a shadow of suspicion and conspiracy around Juholt in the most childish way.

The candidate is chosen by a democratic process within the party, and the choice reflects the will of a majority of party representatives. Those are the ones who should be asked what expectations they had when they chose Juholt. But they are history for the journalists and reporters. Now it’s Juholt who is the fair game. Ahhh, politics!!

Winds from the left

2011-03-11 Friday
Yesterday the election committee presented its result, and nominated a candidate to become the new chairman of the Social Democrats, a not so well known man called Håkan Juholt. He is a member of the parliament and chairman of the defense committee there. This decision has the support of the boards of the 20 plus party districts around the country. Apparently they thought that the old, well-known guys have their best days behind them, and choose this new, energetic man who is believed to position himself somewhat to the left of the mainstream within the party.

Most people here haven’t seen Juholt in action until yesterday. At the press conference he gave a vivid and positive impression and didn’t conceal his concern for the people in most need. Probably he surprised not a few with a commanding presence and swift answers. Anyway, the center-right (what we here call liberal) papers today immediately played down their readers expectations by somewhat disparaging remarks about the new candidate. This is indeed a promising sign for the Social Democrats.

The party’s former leadership had the illusion that success in elections depended on how well they could impersonate the political ideas of the bourgeoisie parties. This was called “to adjust to the mainstream line” in politics. Now the frontiers are more clearly defined and the forces ready to action. It’s spring coming!

The democratic election of one candidate

2011-03-10 Thursday
The daily question in the newspapers here is who is going to be the next chairman of the Social Democrats, the party that once created the Swedish model and ruled the country for most part of the past century. In last years election the party lost again, and the center-right government got another four years in power. With some delay the party chairman, Mona Sahlin, finally resigned and a new one will be elected later this month.

An old tradition in the Social Democrats is that a new chairman is agreed upon through discussions and negotiations among representative bodies within the party, so that the party convention has only one candidate to vote for. This means months of speculations in media about which candidate is the hottest for the moment.

This procedure once ended in an odd way. When Ingvar Carlsson retired as chairman in 1996 there was a few possible successors, among them the eminent finance minister Göran Persson. But he emphatically announced that he wasn’t a candidate, and that the only thing he wanted was to remain finance minister. It was all very convincing and media accepted it as true. So when the day came and Persson was presented as the new candidate for chairman and prime minister, many jaws were dropped. Subsequently the journalists were fooled, and that is something they never forgive (they were challenged in their own field, which is to master in fooling others).

Anyway, the question who should be the chairman of the Social Democrats is often presented as if it was a concern for the whole country. Thus the center-right newspapers, who have an overwhelming dominance in the market for printed media, treats it almost as a national trauma when the selection procedure now meets problems. Every day old and new possible candidates are scrutinized and judged. No favorite has emerged and none of the names mentioned are exciting in any way. Some of the names are really unknown to the public, and those who are well known are intimately connected with the election failure and in many peoples opinions politically worn-out.

In the blog-world even Göran Persson’s name is mentioned again, but this time really in vain. Soon we will know, and that will probably deserve to be commented on.

The convenience of obedient dictatorships

2011-03-09 Wednesday
On my Swedish page Dagsnoteringar today I refer to a talk by Noam Chomsky, where he in the Q&A session touched upon the dictatorship in Egypt. The talk was given in 2010, i.e. long before the now ongoing uprising started, and he commented a press conference held by Barack Obama before the president’s travel to Egypt in 2009. Obama was asked whether he would raise any questions about the authoritarian regime in Egypt with his host, Mubarak. (Chomsky commented that the word “authoritarian” was more of a compliment to one of the most brutal dictatorships in the Arab world.)

According to Chomsky the president answered: “I don’t like to use labels for folks, so I will not call him authoritarian. In fact he is a force for stability and for good”. You may remember a similar comment (2011-02-26) by our foreign minister Carl Bildt, this time about Gaddafi of Libya. The guys from the smaller countries learn from the bigger chiefs!

One question Chomsky thinks that we should ask ourselves is how we might expect the Arab world to take seriously our harsh demands on (for instance) Iranian leaders to respect human rights, at the same time we treat much more horrible dictatorships with kid gloves. Of course he doesn’t find the very fact especially strange. Useful and obedient dictatorships are frequently well treated by western countries. But the blatant hypocrisy is nonetheless a disgrace for civilized and thinking people.


Cooperation defying economic theory

2011-03-08 Tuesday
How come a non-profit, state regulated public service media company can outperform every private counterpart in all respects, also in reaching an overwhelming share of the viewers? It’s not even an isolated Scandinavian phenomenon, we have BBC in Britain as another role model. Thus it should not be a mystery. But with respect to strict neoclassical economics it is.

We remember from our school books how the perfect society was formed, did we just let the invisible hand guide the egoistic economic man (within us all) act solely to maximize his personal gain. In such a society no cooperative or any other non-profit enterprise could compete with companies driven by the force that private profit creates. Still there are in our country lots of such competitive organizations built on idealistic grounds. It seems that the theory is in fact – quiet bad!

To start where work is really free of charge: estimates have been done that about 300 thousand man-years of work is performed in Sweden, completely without pay, in charity work, sports clubs and in many other activities (incidentally this figure roughly equals the number of unemployed). Then there is a large consumer cooperative, called Coop (formerly Konsum) which is a major actor in retail trade of everyday commodities. There is an interesting political component here. Konsum is somewhat despised in some bourgeoisie circles, who prefer the largest private alternative ICA.

ICA is a franchise organization, with the shop managers taking care of the (sometimes quite large) profits. Still ICA has not been able, through many decades, to oust Konsum from the market. It seems that the absence of a demand for profit creates enough economic margin for Coop to survive. So in every Swedish community there usually is an ICA-shop on one side of the main street, and a Coop-store on the other. Often ICA and Coop have engaged their own architects, responsible for designing a number of stores, so when you travel by car and pass all these small cities you have perfect déjà-vu experiences.

All this is by no means socialism! Sweden has a much more privatized economy than France, among others. We have for instance probably the most privatized railway system in the world, with almost 30 different companies driving trains to and fro on the rails. Together with neglected maintenance the railway system thus has deteriorated. But that is a sad story in its own, which people here rather not think about.

EU restricts public service TV – and programs people prefer

2011-03-07 Monday
Bureaucrats in the European Union try to interfere with the rules for state owned public service radio and television in member countries. Their capitalist dream is to reduce those services to a minimum, with a first step to prohibit public service broadcasters from producing types of programs that commercial corporations at all can do. The rationale is to prevent states from distorting competition by more or less invisible subsidies.

The problem is that commercial television stands for quite bad quality and taste in most of Europe, and certainly in Sweden. As audience research here shows: of the 20 most viewed TV-programs in 2010, two (in places 9 and 19) were made by the largest commercial corporation (TV4), the rest 18 by our state controlled public service company, SVT. All the other private broadcasters were not in the vicinity of the list at all.

It’s of course remarkable that the private broadcasters have failed so completely when it comes to their only objective: to produce programs that attract many people. The reason is however rather obvious for a lot of observers with their brains functioning. The companies have made the false assumption that people would like simple, superficial and sometimes stupid programs. They really didn’t understand the ordinary TV viewer in their own country. Perhaps they had been to the US to learn the basics, and didn’t notice that there is a large differences in our cultures, who knows?

Dagens Nyheter revealed the viewer statistics today, together with an interview with the head of TV4. He obviously approved of the restrictions for public service proposed by EU, and bragged somewhat about his company’s good economy and profitability, but had no comments on the bad statistics.

The reader’s comments to the interview in the web version of DN was filled with patronizing critique of TV4, their long and frequent commercials and their terrible programs. Not a single positive word so far. This is the depressing reality that EU bureaucrats and the Swedish government will meet by restricting their highly competent public service competitor. There is indeed a call for a reborn Jonathan Swift!

Parodical secret police

2011-03-06 Sunday
Speaking about secret services, in Sweden carried out by Säkerhetspolisen, or SÄPO for short: those who are familiar with the now famous Millennium trilogy by Stieg Larsson, especially the third part, have been given an exaggerated example of SÄPO’s activities. In reality the operations probably are far more dull and trivial. With the need for “budget spies”, to motivate state appropriations, popping up every so often. Accordingly the media every other year or so is fed with information about some spy arrested on diffuse grounds, most of the circumstances secret, of course, and soon it’s all forgotten and the suspect released. Nowadays that arsenal of suspects has been reinforced with the concept “terrorist”.

Since World War II we have had three real spies as far as I know. They were all trusted persons, none of them a communist. The most famous (and dangerous) was a colonel in the air force, Stig Wennerström, who delivered important military secrets to the Soviet Union. According to himself the reason was to level the balance in world politics between USA and the Soviets. The second one was a marine officer, and the third a police officer at times working for SÄPO. But there also was a fictional spy who fitted SÄPO’s default image of a real spy much better. He was a communist, a party member, living in the dark north.

This mans name was Fritiof Enbom, a notorious mythomaniac who was sickly driven to become famous for something, be it at the price of a lifetime spent in jail. This was in the 1950s and the Cold War was at it’s hottest. SÄPO had a desperate need to come up with a spy (two of the real spies were not found yet), preferably a communist one, and so had the rest of the establishment. (Sweden was certainly not that socialist society the Eisenhower’s administration tried to create an image of.) Thus the police, judge, prosecutor, attorneys and media cooperated effectively to reach mostly false verdicts. Secret documents, since declassified, reveals the tragicomic imaginations accepted as truths by all presumably intelligent people who created the verdicts.

To bring some credibility to his fictional stories, Enbom dragged a number of friends into the shenanigan, by mainly false accusations. A number of the “spies” were convicted, Enbom and a man called Gjersvold to lifetime in prison with hard labor. Gjersvold tried a number of times to appeal the sentence, without success. He was paroled in 1962, but continued his struggle for rehabilitation. Books were written about the miscarriage of justice in the Enbom case, and many prominent people became engaged in Gjersvold’s destiny. He died in 2002, before his last appeal to the Supreme Court was settled.

This is a different picture of the Swedish model, embraced by progressives throughout the world. Even the sun has spots, as we say here.

Amateurish secret police

2011-03-05 Saturday
A fairly recent law in Sweden authorizes Försvarets radioanstalt (FRA) – our equivalent to the National Security Agency (NSA) in USA – to monitor (among other things) data traffic crossing the border. Since the server hosting my web hotel is not placed in Sweden, this website is certainly passing through the FRA filters. Maybe also NSA crawlers are searching for signal words in this English section.

Anyway, the other day a curious thing occurred. All the pages on this site was momentarily visited exactly 20 minutes each, which has never happened before. Now, I’m not inclined to conspiracy theories, and will not claim or even suggest anything. But it brought to mind a 35 years old memory.

I then lived in Stockholm with a woman who worked at an office serving Swedish technical attaches, with Eastern Europe and Russia as her special responsibility. It was an highly official activity under the auspices of The Royal Academy of Engineering Sciences. But in those days even the most elevated connections with the communist countries was regarded, at least by the silly secret police, as something suspicious.

Consequently our telephone was tapped. Even such a simple thing was made in the most amateurish way with click sounds, tones and sometimes voices constantly disturbing our calls. What in the world they thought to achieve with that probably expensive activity challenged my imagination.

So, if NSA incidentally is listening: I’m a completely peaceful man, who never in my 70 years have physically hurt any living creature, human or animal (with the exception of insects and the like). The closest I have come to domestic violence is two instances many years ago. The first one was a woman (who had dumped me!) hitting me in the face, and the other a woman (whom I had dumped) threatening me with a knife. In both cases I just walked away.

Seriously though, we enjoy in this country an extensive freedom of expression. Even more so in the USA. We should always be grateful to the popular struggle which took us there, and to a system which keeps it that way. And thus try to resist any attempt by the powerful to undermine that right.