Media nurturing populism

Media nurturing populism

When I returned to the Turun Sanomat newspaper editorial staff in the summer of 2011, after nearly four years as a Brussels correspondent, I was struck by how different the environment was after the spring parliamentary election. It was clearly visible in terms of work and leisure for a journalist who had lived abroad for several years.

At the Turku Market Square in Finland, I was stopped by a stranger who was annoyed by the fact that I was speaking in French on my mobile phone. There was a ‘new order’ operating in Finland, I was told.

The situation in the editorial office also seemed strange, to say the least. Although the Finns Party was expected to gain a significant electoral victory, the sheer size of the ‘big bomb’ was still a surprise for many.

At least for a moment, the media was paralyzed. Various reasons for the development of the situation have been offered.

For instance, it has been proved that the Eurozone crisis and especially the aid packages led to the media strongly criticising the EU. This gave credibility to the Finns Party’s criticism of the EU and laid the foundations for the big bomb. One could say, therefore, that the ‘big bomb’ was the unintended consequence of the EU criticism all over the media.

According to reports published after the election, the Finns Party’s electoral victory was aided by the fact that its party leader, Timo Soini, got a place in the chairmen’s campaign debate based on poll results. Soini was seen as a skilled speaker with easily understandable opinions. Veteran politicians from many traditional parties were heard saying during the coverage of election night that they needed to change the style of their language to be more popular.

The crisis of the media business happened during the same time as the rise of the Finns Party. Soini’s wisecracks brought welcome clicks and it was not dee- med necessary to filter or fact-check his opinions and false statements. Each of Soini’s statements was a potential number one story for the day – when measured in clicks – so it was worth repeating the statements in online news as often as possible.

One reason for the journalists’ lack of criticality was their knowledge gap on the EU – which once again became obvious in the run up to the 2014 European elections. Like many politicians, the media has kept repeating false statements about the EU without checking the facts.

Another way in which the media helped the Finns Party was their failure to thoroughly and knowledgeably report on the fascist nature of Suomen Sisu’s – an organisation inside the Finns Party – platform. They also failed to cover the racist nature of the Finns Party’s so-called ‘Dull Electoral Manifesto’.

Many of my colleagues later regretted not having seen their significance when the hard right winds started to rise. The journalists were very aware of racism on the net but were not able to predict that the Finns Party would start to attract racists and therefore gain support.

In every editorial office the problem was not a question of hushing but rather the fact that the media underestimated the potential of the phenomenon. The journalists recognised the subject but did not see any reason to feed it. Our news editor told me that it seemed wiser to stay quiet about xenophobia because they thought the phenomenon would ‘vanish into thin air’.

From the beginning, it was essential for the big picture that Soini be profiled in the media as a sort of man of the people, the official voice of the ‘whole people’ – just as he wanted. The Finns Party politicians have been riding on this and repeating the idea that condemning the party equals condemning and ridiculing the common people, as well as unfoundedly persecuting or oppressing the white, meat-eating, heterosexual male.

Many journalists have publicly admitted that they are afraid of the aggressive reactions of the far-right True Finns supporters towards articles criticising the party and have refrained from writing about the matter and not facing the angry flood. Female journalists have been threatened with rape and the deaths of their loved ones.

As a writer for the Turun Sanomat newspaper, I wrote thousands of stories. Only four of them were, to some extent, about the Finns Party and the operations of the party’s hard right wing line. The number of hate messages was enormous compared to how much the readers commented on my other stories. Apparently even the editor-in-chief got his share of the groundswell of feedback, and he finally asked me to ‘take a break from writing’.

Aggression, ridicule and slander have become commonplace in politics. It is acceptable and presentable even at the parliament’s plenary sessions where the MPs discuss immigration, equal marriage law and the standing of the Swedish language in bilingual Finland. The parliament’s moderators have rarely interfered in the vulgar and insulting addresses.

Editorial offices were not able to see the rise of the Finns Party as a significant phenomenon. The party’s subsequent slip into the realm of what is acceptable was perhaps partly due to the collective shame which emerged when this rising phenomenon was not foreseen.

Following the change in political language, the media’s language has also changed. Many journalists see politics merely as an entertaining game between the parties – matters that are deeply societal, historical, human, moral and economic. Populism has rooted itself in journalism, as it has in politics. The expectation is that the readers want entertainment politics when discussing the explosive growth in the importance of social media. This too distorts our view of managing common affairs.

Due to the above-mentioned reasons, the media has strongly affected the rise of the support for the Finns Party. Next, I shall examine the above-mentioned themes more closely. This is a subjective view based on my observations in everyday journalistic work.

From being a joke to a channel for the underclasses

In the early 2000s, the Finns Party was seen as a mere joke, a group sitting in the back row, blurting out all kinds of things but rarely saying anything constructive.

Timo Soini’s star started to rise after the 2003 election when his entertainment value grew quickly. Few thought of him as a statesman or even as a politician to be reckoned with and was rather a joker who spoke a different language than the other politicians. Since his only agenda seemed to be putting spokes in the wheels, he was not considered very dangerous to the other parties.

Even the xenophobia of the party started out as a joke. The ex-boxer turned MP, Tony Halme, was the tough guys’ favourite who gained thousands of votes with his racist jokes. The view was that that there was enough room in the world for everyone’s voice.

Prior to the 2011 election, the support for the Finns Party in the polls increased quickly. Many journalists’ interpretation of the figures was that the support would melt away before the election. The party would gain more seats but not as many as the polls predicted. The party was still not taken seriously, and it continued to be labelled as a ‘joke’. It was a group that provided a good laugh every now and then. It was thought that the people would ultimately be too rational to vote for the loonies. But the people surprised everyone.

Many do not believe that Soini’s original aim was to get the far right into the parliament. It was more a question of the Finns Party scraping together all the people they could before the election. The roster included many who identified themselves as ‘immigration critics’. Soini did not reject them and actually found them useful for the party.

We also have to remember that the Finns Party still provides a channel for the underprivileged. Finland contains a large group of people whose true nature is politically incorrect to describe: bitter, uneducated people who risk marginalisation. The Finns Party says that these people, too, are valuable, and in that, the party is right. The media is just having a hard time accepting that the underprivileged may be able to make decisions that are just as good as the ones we, the well-off, would like to think we are making.

Soini will not be challenged

The Finns Party leader, Timo Soini, is often given more leeway in interviews compared to other party leaders. He is allowed to subject the government members and other top politicians to ridicule and name-calling. His quips provide great scoops.

One has to wonder why Soini is elevated by the media into the position of a bully and a political commentator. In my opinion, the other party leaders are mostly asked about their party matters or general factual matters in politics.

Few people have heard Soini talk about improving the national economy, about how to increase entrepreneurialism, employment and wealth. These kinds of politicians have generally not been regarded as amusing but rather dangerous, a certain type of bully in public politics, the likes of whom stop populism from achieving anything but complaints and the bad-mouthing of others.

Soini is never asked difficult questions. In a way, we are afraid that he will not be able to answer, that despite his long career he would fail at tackling substantial questions. This becomes obvious around EU politics, even when Soini has been a Member of the European Parliament.

When comparing the way the EU debt crisis was discussed in Finland to elsewhere in Europe, it felt like a whole different crisis. In Finland, we harped on about securities when elsewhere in Europe the discussion revolved around ways of working together to resolve the crisis.

The Finns Party leader Timo Soini was unable to offer any solutions for the crisis although there would have been demand for the opposition’s alternative. Instead of constructive suggestions, Soini resorted to half-hearted witticisms. Few journalists challenged Soini, and even fewer checked or corrected his false statements about the EU.

I wrote the following dementing piece when the parliament returned from its summer holidays for a historic plenary session in 2012:

‘There will be new aid packages because the Southern European countries can- not cope with the Euro. If there is a 25 per cent unemployment rate in Spain, is the Euro working?’ asks Soini, forgetting that there was a 25 per cent unemployment rate in Spain also during the times of the Peseta.

If the Spanish get no joy out of the Euro, one should ask instead why is it that they want to stick with it. Would the economic situation in Europe be better if the currencies were floating? Great Britain has a floating currency and its rates are much worse than the average rates in the Eurozone. The truth of is that the economic balance is improving in all crisis countries. To talk about anything else is equal to changing horses while crossing the river.

‘The aid package for Spain is a bluff because the decision supports the banks and not the Spanish state’, Soini argued.

But the support does not necessarily have to go to the state. The future banking union will enable the Europeans to get their money back if a bank col- lapses. The loss for the tax-payer when a bank collapses will be minimal, because in return for banking support, we get shares. With the support, the stability of the Eurozone increases.

‘The crisis decisions made by the EU make the union a federal state which takes away our self- determination. We have witnessed experiments on centralised power very close to home’, Soini says.

The ‘Euroviet Union’ card was played back in 1994. The Estonians, who know a thing or two about both the Soviet Union and the EU, decided to break away from the former and join the latter.

Soini defends the nation state because, according to him, democracy came to be a part of modern society through nation states. ‘Dictatorships, monarchies and oligarchies were around before democracy, and democracies have generally been nation states.’

However, nation states also brought Europe two world wars and several dictatorships. The EU has brought unparalleled welfare and the longest period of peace in European history. Democracy dates back to the 18th century but the nation state dates back to the 19th century. The United States is a democracy but it has never been a ‘nation state’.

‘What is wrong with exploring the possibilities of breaking away from the Euro? Where are the calculations that prove that the price of breaking away would be high?’ Soini asked.

The price of breaking away from the Euro would not even be definite through analyses. Rocking the boat right now is unlikely to be helpful.

Soini thinks that ‘the people were not given the opportunity to have their say about the monetary union, as were the Swedes and the Danes, which is why there is a lot of resentment around this subject.’

The Finnish people are in favour of sticking with the Euro, but Soini seems unable to pick a view for himself. If the Euro is not working, why is he not openly demanding for us to break away from it?

The man of the people is still fought using light gloves

The Finns Party has been treated rather uncritically, a good example of which is the attempt to make the rise of the party disappear by staying quiet about it.

We still fight Soini with light gloves because of his self-crafted persona of ‘man of the people’. The media has bought the character and now treats Soini with too much respect, in fear of receiving a flood of hate mail from xenophobes and other internet bullies. The concepts of ‘the people’ or ‘the man of the people’ are not easily deconstructed, not even when Soini’s long-term populist strategy is widely known.

Soini and his followers often appeal to their freedom of speech, as if all forms of criticism were restricting this freedom. If the Finns Party was able to stand by its statements, its politicians would provide support for their arguments instead of immediately playing the martyr card.

When representatives of the far right gained an influential role in the Finns Party, it was difficult to get journalists from the big media outlets to write about racism.

Interestingly, the Finns Party has been treated worse than other parties in that their actions are sensationalised more easily; but at the same time this is an advantage. In my opinion, the party’s popularity relies heavily on ‘the myth of the oppressed, white, heterosexual male’, which is surely somewhat inherited from the Suomen Sisu organisation, of which some of the Finns Party MPs are members.

Lately, one of the biggest concerns for the EU has been the rise of extreme nationalism, which is why the rejection of fascism is recorded in the treaty for the European Union. The whole community was created in order to root out Nazism and wars in Europe.

There is a clear and active far right movement in Finland: the Suomen Sisu organisation’s public platform is, according to official evaluations, fascist and racist, yet many MPs are committed to the platform.

The radicalisation of the extremist online element has already led to harsh actions in Europe. Officials who have investigated the subject think that it is only a matter of time before someone fulfils the violent fantasies of some online writer who considers himself moderate. This side of racism is a new phenomenon in Finland.

Soini opened the parliament doors to the far right on purpose. In addition to anti-immigrant attitudes, other actions against human rights have reared their ugly heads in a whole new way, including homophobia, misogyny, mocking the disabled, slandering the Swedish-speaking Finns and, more recently, the admiration for Russia.

The fascism within the platform of the Suomen Sisu organisation (which operates inside the Finns Party), and the racism in the ‘Dull Electoral Manifesto’ were neither thoroughly nor expertly covered by the media before the Finns Party’s electoral victory.

The Suomen Sisu platform is an edited version of Finnish, German and Italian fascist party platforms from the 1930s and 1940s, and the Dull Electoral Manifesto encourages racism.

The Finns Party leader, Timo Soini, who has dissociated himself from racism, at a certain moment took the decision of bringing Suomen Sisu into the party, conscious of the nature of the organisation.

Finnish public discourse lacks expertise on fascism and racism, which has allowed the alliance between Soini and Suomen Sisu to be established. In Finland, many believe that the 1930s could never happen again but, for instance, this is what happened in South America during the whole post- World War II period, all the way until democracy slowly started to become established. Democracy can crumble very easily.

Suomen Sisu denies being a fascist organisation, but if one thinks that not all people are equal and accepts violence as a tool for executing the policies stemming from this thought, one is defined as a fascist. The organisation should honestly admit this, because it is indeed an openly zealous national movement which defines human value based on nationality, race and culture. Racism and fascism as ideologies are not illegal.

One reason for the Finnish media not being able to openly state Suomen Sisu’s fascist nature is, in addition to a lack of historical knowledge, the fact that the Soviet Union and its allies such as the Finnish Taistoists falsely used the concept of fascism to describe the right wing in general. This is also a current issue in the speeches of those defending Russia’s present-day military operations.

There certainly has been racism and fascism in other parties beside the Finns Party, but the actions have not been as visible and active. In other parties, similar activities usually get you fired.

The middle-of-the-road fallacy

In a television studio, the counter-balance for a right-wing extremist is to have a left-wing activist, or a person who has extensively studied the far right phenomenon sat next to a Suomen Sisu MP. That brings a dose of good tension but no answers. After this we are told that the viewer is free to choose his own beliefs. This is the middle-of-the-road fallacy rooted in the media, which wants to polarise topics and themes. A weighed argument and a slandering quip are made equal.

The journalists position themselves between the debaters and do not take a stand as they strive for objectivity. This false balance phenomenon should also be more actively discussed in Finland.

As organised extremist movements grow in Europe, we should be careful when classifying nationalists, xenophobes, neo-fascists and perhaps even EU critics. There is so much contradiction and overlap that it is easy to just paint them all the same colour.

Language matters

The language of the people has been misunderstood on purpose. Slander has become an accepted form of politics and it has also rubbed off on other politi- cians. This phenomenon is now starting to be the norm in the media too.

There is an unwritten rule in the parliament: you are not allowed to call your colleague a liar. This ban is handy for concealing the falsities in an ambiguous and manipulative political message. A politician’s lies are for some reason refer- red to as ‘alterations of the truth’, which leads to politicians deceptively arguing about the meaning of words, inventing substitute terms, and not discussing the matter at hand.

Political language needs to be full of unclear language because politicians need the support of mutually disagreeing groups. The strategic vagueness of political rhetoric is a central part of politics because turning changing one’s tune and taking one’s words back when necessary would not be possible without there being room for interpretation.

A politician who has been talking bunkum can easily claim that the journalists are distorting his claims and cutting corners when they translate the political language into standard language.

Many new MPs who campaigned with honesty before the “big bomb”, have quickly assumed this intentionally unclear and dishonest rhetoric even though semantic claptrap has been one reason why so many have been disappointed with politics.

The politicians sweepingly talk about ‘us’, ‘the people’ and ‘the Finns’ without defining who ‘we’, ‘the people’ or ‘the Finns’ are. In the ethnicised Eurozone crisis debate, the Greeks were deemed liars and the Portuguese lazy, even though ‘Greekness’ in itself does not make anyone a liar and ‘Portugueseness’ does not make anyone lazy. Xenophobia, on the other hand, has been veiled as ‘immigration criticism’.

The Finns Party leader Timo Soini has even assumed the far right’s mocking term ‘the tolerants’ (‘the chattering classes’). He has written in his blog that ‘in Finland, the tolerants’ fascism and Darwinism are in boom’, although the tole- rants – unlike fascists – support democracy and oppose the authoritarianism, extreme nationalism and corporatism driven by the fascists.

Soini thus finally exposed his intolerance while forgetting that methodological fascism is in boon in the public platform of the Suomen Sisu organisation – which operates inside his own party. The platform bans the mixing of different nationalities and threatens freedom of speech by saying that ‘opinion leaders must be punished’.

Yet Soini cannot honestly admit the organisation’s racist and fascist nature because this would provide the other parties with a reason to shut the Finns Party out of political co-operation. This is why he has to pretend and offer his party’s fascist’ and racist opinions to the media bit by bit, as if the bits did not form a whole.

The Finns Party MPs have brushed off their rubbish as jokes, whether they are about ending all support for ‘pretentious postmodern art’, demanding tanks to be sent into the streets of Athens, or paraphrasing the old nazi quote: ‘every time I hear the word parliamentarism I release the safety on my pistol.’

The target of these elite-mocking jokes is unclear since the joking Finns Party representatives are members of the elite as MPs.

However, altering the truth is more dangerous than joking or lying.

Lying is an intentional false statement where the speaker has to know what the truth is. Otherwise he would not be lying. He who lies and he who tells the truth are playing the same game. A speaker of altered truth can completely ignore these requirements. He is neither rejecting the authority of truth nor opposing it like a liar – he is completely ignoring it.

The media has unfortunately often given politicians the chance to speak vaguely, i.e. against truth or at least against openness. We do not have to tolerate the politicians’ bunkum. The language-user must explain his choices and not convey his intentions. Sincerity benefits all. This is why the media has to continue its work and reveal how an intentionally ambiguous politician is not clearly bringing out his motives, which is fishy subliminal indoctrination.

The media has made a freak show out of politics

The media and our current rulers have turned politicians into circus clowns, which is eating away citizens’ trust in the political system. The great hall of the parliament house is seen even in public question time broadcasts as a hostelry where people laugh in groups, shout and make noise. Doors are slammed and people run around, fiddle with their phones and act like a classroom full of unruly children.

The ever decreasing interest in politics is to a great extent the media’s fault. Journalists have, for years, unfairly ridiculed politics and politicians.

Populism has rooted itself in journalism, as it has in politics. The expectation is that the readers want entertainment politics when discussing the explosive growth in the importance of social media. This too distorts our view of managing common affairs.

Statements are blurted out using children’s language, and they renew, repeat and maintain myths and the tall poppy syndrome.

Journalism would benefit more from new tools for analysing and explaining the ever growing flood of stories. Those who still read print papers want increasingly intelligent and challenging pieces.

We have to construct stronger pedestals and higher ivory towers. More elitism!

Elitism is knowing a little more than others. Elitism is a term connected to people such as researchers and politicians who inevitably know more than others about certain subjects. I do not mean the kind of elitist who uses his membership in special clubs to his advantage. I mean that it is important that each field be governed by the elite, i.e. elitistically managed. This means the same as the fact that buildings are designed by architects and engineers and operations performed by surgeons. All kinds of skills form the basis for a functioning society, which is always to some extent the elite’s concern. Those who mock it as an ‘ism’ are sceptics and pretenders to power misusing their status.

Today, however, a journalist is populistically free to decide that the headlines should no longer fulfil their original purpose, i.e. state what the story is about. On the contrary, amidst all the sensations, the journalist asks the readers how things are. Facts become opinions when the journalist does not do his actual journalistic work, which is researching topics and reporting the results to the reader.

Since it started to become evident that the Finns Party was headed for success, it would have been desirable for political journalists to start treating the other parties as critically as the racist wing of the Finns Party, but the gauge was calibrated in such a way that the Finns Party gained appeal and the right to be treated as slackly as the other parties.

However, the Finns Party has done many things so skilfully that it has been difficult to get a grip on them. The party’s jester contingent has caused all the commotion and in a way acted as a buffer against true criticism; talking about real questions has started to seem like a witch-hunt.

I naturally do not believe that this was a result of Soini’s intentional strategy. The Finns Party is let off easy because political journalism in general in Finland is very loose.

The media still feels a burden of guilt because it was not able to foresee the rise of the Finns Party, which is why the media often fails in covering the party. ‘The voice of the working classes’ was highly emphasised during the 2011 electoral campaign when stories from ‘within the people’ started to emerge, but the reaction at the time was forced and too late. The shame brought on by the shock has not been thoroughly dealt with either in editorial offices or publicly in the media. In addition, the fear of the far right’s reactions, the hardening of the political rhetoric, politics becoming more and more entertaining, the language of the media becoming more childish, the rise of click-bait journalism and the middle-of-the-road fallacy have together created an excellent opportunity for populism to become appealing. In order for the situation to change, journalism has to change. In order to survive the crisis and get over the current transition phase, journalism needs more elitism to explain to the entertainment editors how society works.

Tuomas Muraja, journalist and author