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Respectability Restored – the Swedish System of Press Regulation Relies on Public Decision-making

For the third in our series talking to press regulators around the world, we spoke to Ola Sigvardsson, Press Ombudsman at the Swedish Press Council.

Sweden is justifiably proud of its long tradition of press freedom which goes as far back as 1766 when the world’s first law enacting the freedom of the press was introduced. This law is part of the Swedish constitution.

Ola Sigvardsson, Press Ombudsman at the Swedish Press Council sees the system of press regulation as a ‘court of honour’ where anyone with a complaint can seek redress. He said: “We are independent of the state. We have no support from the law and no money from government. We have no newspapers or magazines directly connected to the system.

“We think that gives the system more autonomy and more stability. The council is free to act as a ‘court of honour’ where anyone with a complaint can get their respectability restored by public decisions – instead of going to court.”

The Swedish Press Council was founded as far back as 1916. Its first code of ethics was developed in 1923. These days the board is made up of representatives from the four major press organisations: the Newspaper Publishers Association, the Magazine Publishers Association, the Journalist’s Union and the National Press Club. They have three responsibilities: to instruct the Press Ombudsman and the Press Council, handle the code of ethics and fund the system which costs around £500,000 per year.

The Press Council comprises three groups: media representatives appointed by the board, representatives of the public appointed by the Swedish Law Society and the Parliamentary Ombudsman (Justitieombudsmannen) and four judges from Sweden’s supreme court. Together the judges and the public representatives are in the majority on the council.

Sigvardsson continues: “Our job is to give individual citizens a fair way to restore their respectability when inaccurately or unjustly hurt or damaged by a newspaper. If we can continue to do that successfully, there is no need for new laws restricting the freedom of the press. These two targets go hand in hand.

“We are respected by the press and not especially well known by the public. But when a person has a conflict with a paper they find us soon enough. Over the past six years complaints have almost doubled from 300 to 500-600/year.”

Whilst the Swedish system is voluntary and without a legal framework the vast majority of the print media are members through their organisations on the board and it carries a certain stamp of approval if they’re signed up.

Transparency is a major plank of culture and tradition in Sweden and the principle of public access was the world’s first law of its kind. This gives the public access to all court and government materials. Whistle blowing legislation in Sweden is such that even asking a journalist to reveal an anonymous source is against the law though this is only valid in publicly financed workplaces, like the state and local authorities.

With fake news on the rise, Sigvardsson believes that self-regulation will be as important in the future as it is today. He concludes: “The crucial task is to make publishers of online-only newspapers and magazines aware of the importance of self regulation and bring them in as a natural part of our system. Today online-only papers in Sweden can apply to be a part of our system; so far around 30 have done so. This is just the beginning.”