Stieg Larsson and the perils of impartialityPosted on: 03 October 2011 by Alexander Hay
A biography of the late Stieg Larsson by a close friend misses the point on the nature of journalism, what journalists should be held to account for and the underlying dysfunction at the heart of Swedish society
Reading Kurdo Baksi's personal memoir-meets-biography, 'Stieg Larsson, My Friend', is a relatively enjoyable if slightly anodyne experience. Perhaps it's due to the translation from Swedish, or perhaps because of a mild, if stereotypical, Scandinavian reserve that lingers throughout the proceedings. As a thorough introduction and primer to the author of the Millenium trilogy, which made autistic spectrum abuse victim hackers the new cool, it's hard to criticise. But Baksi makes one single critical error.
During an investigation of far right elements in Sweden, Larsson himself was threatened by them. Never one to turn down a fight, he proceeded to report about these threats and, as a result, was fired for 'professional misconduct'. Rather than pondering what Larsson actually did wrong - which was nothing - Baksi finds himself in full agreement with the decision:
...Obviously, Stieg knew all the rules governing news journalism like the back of his hand. Even so, his text lacked the neutrality, impartiality and relevance required of a professional journalist... He was aware, of course, that it was wrong of him to write about threats aimed at himself and his colleagues... Nobody else had noticed his violation of the rules. But that is what it was and i thought it unworthy of him. I wept over my friend's error...
Baksi's rather naive, not to mention sanctimonious tone is worthy of criticism on many levels. Firstly, the notion of impartiality and 'professional journalism'. It is impossible to be impartial. By choosing to report or comment on the news, you make a subjective decision to interpret events through a particular lens. In this case, news journalism. Even the act of impartiality is itself a gesture of bias. Not picking a side is every bit as much a choice as picking one.
Impartiality is also a dead end in other ways. How can one be impartial to genocide, persecution or totalitarianism? Here, the value of the reportage lies not in abstract notions of impartiality, but the accuracy of the reporting and the verifiability of what it contains. This honest statement of opinion does not undermine the journalist - only wilful distortion and a lack of accountability does that. (As in, being like Fox News or Johann Hari.) Very little great journalism is impartial. Mark Twain and Orwell were not impartial. Satirists-as-journalists, in the form of Private Eye and The Daily Show, meanwhile provide better insights into the news than most traditional 'impartial' media outlets
Also, if there is any one unbreakable rule of a journalist, it is that stories must be told. Larrson's decision was perfectly ethical for that reason, and being at the centre of a story is the best place for a journalist to be. Larrson would only have failed in his duty as a journalist if he had not reported what happened. One should never let one's ethics get in the way of doing the right thing.
For example, one may not always agree with PJ O'Rourke's politics, but his work remains informative, entertaining, honours the principle of going to the story and seeing for yourself and, of course, is rather biased. An intelligent, engaged reader is capable of knowing this and making their own value judgements. The danger of 'impartiality', meanwhile, is that it creates a dangerous faith in infallibility, both on the part of the author, and the reader.
More to the point, Baksi forgets the point Larsson was trying to make with his Millenium Trilogy. If Baksi represents a Sweden of smiling, empty idealism, not to mention bien pensant obedience to the status quo, Larsson invokes a country that was still practising eugenics in the 1970s, has never come to terms with its links to Nazi Germany, broils with social tensions and which reaches deep into the lives of its citizens, in the form of mandatory military service (which only ended last year) and identity cards.
In that sense, the Millennium Trilogy fits into a larger narrative of self-analysis through media, from the grim police procedurals of Wallander, through the ugly side of Swedish childhood in 'Let the Right One In' to Sweden's passion for extreme, violent and often nihilistic music. There is a darkness in the Swedish soul, and Larsson was right to reveal it, both in his fiction and his journalism.
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