When we started The Local in 2004, I frequently found myself annoyed with the way the country was covered.
If it was written about at all, outside of the sports and financial pages, it was painted in utopian terms that I found hard to reconcile with the complex society I lived in.
Columnists like Polly Toynbee popped over and saw the most successful society the world had ever seen. I saw a generally happy and contented society, with high levels of trust and excellent public services, but also saw segregated cities in which immigrants lived behind invisible walls, in areas rarely visited by native Swedes. I saw the world's healthiest population with one of the world's highest levels of sick leave. Where outsiders saw a utopia, reality was more complex – and more interesting.
Fast forward thirteen years and look how far the pendulum has swung.
Now, Sweden is the favourite poster child of the global far-right, of Breitbart, RT (Russia Today) and Trump acolyte Nigel Farage. But instead of fêting its successes, their job is to dismantle the picture of Sweden as a utopia. The far-right Gatestone Institute, frequently cited by these media, calls it a 'failed state'.
Often these journalists just rip tidbits off the web, take them out of context and use them to portray Sweden as a place taken to the edge of the abyss by its liberal migration policy.
American site Breitbart obsessively catalogues Sweden's failures: car burnings and supposed no-go zones are regular fodder for its paranoid editors. No local newspaper crime report is too obscure for them. They also pick up on stories that liberal media run with a positive spin, but turn them against Sweden – like the (somewhat inaccurate) story that the Church of Sweden had stopped calling God 'Lord' in favour of gender-neutral language. Russian propaganda channel RT (Russia Today) obsesses about migrant crime and political correctness.
The theme that Farage, former leader of the UK Independence Party, likes to return to is that Sweden is the 'rape capital of Europe'. Naturally, he blames migrants for this. This weekend he was talking about Sweden again on British radio station LBC:
“The caller earlier… told me how wonderful Sweden was and the picture I was painting was wrong,” he said.
And then to refute them he said this: “[In] the Swedish city of Oskarshamn, joggers going out after night will have the option of being accompanied by armed police officers.”
“Who would have believed I would have said that about a Swedish city just five years ago? It is truly incredible.”
The story he had latched on to was that police in Oskarshamn (more a small town, not a city) had said they would take part in evening runs to create a feeling of security for joggers.
The story about the jogging group was true. The reasons for it were not.
In fact, the policeman in Oskarshamn who organized the jogs said: “Not much happens here, but people are affected by what is happening elsewhere in the world and can feel unsafe when it’s dark.”
In other words, there was no heightened threat. Rather, people who felt uncomfortable jogging in the dark, but who otherwise had no specific reason to be worried, were being helped out by a police force with not much to do. Yet Farage managed to turn this into an example of a country in crisis.
But if Oskarshamn is safe, what about Sweden as a whole? Is Farage right that it's the rape capital of Europe? On the face of it, Sweden has far more reported rapes than other countries – 68 per 100,000 inhabitants, compared to 28 in Belgium (the next European country on the list), 27 in the US and 19 in Norway.
However, look into the figures and the picture of Sweden as a rape capital falls apart. The facts are boring and complex – something the far-right uses to its advantage: who can be bothered to question the headline figures?
First, Sweden's way of reporting crime (each rape by the same rapist against the same victim is counted as a separate incident) and its broad definition of what constitutes rape – increases the number of rapes in the stats. It also means that comparing the figures with other countries is meaningless. Until Sweden widened its definition of rape in 2005, Sweden's rape figures were similar to those in Belgium, Iceland, New Zealand or the US. Too high, for sure, but a rape capital, no.
For the past decade the number of reported rapes per 100,000 has been pretty steady, vacillating between a low of 60 in 2015 and a high of 69 (in 2011). The migrant crisis seems not to have shifted the figures, although the far right repeatedly tries to link high rape levels to migration.
But for Farage and his fellow populists, facts are just tools. They use them selectively to paint a false picture of Sweden as a failed society. Why? For the same reason that left-wing commentators wanted to show it was a success back in 2004: to prove a political point. Breitbart, Russia Today and Farage aren't interested in Sweden, but the open, progressive values they think it represents. If Sweden succeeds, they have failed.
As a British journalist who has actually lived in Sweden for 14 years, I'm getting fed up with people like @Nigel_Farage spreading lies about this country to advance their racist agendas. https://t.co/TDjiDGToII
— James Savage (@SavLocal) November 25, 2017
That's why when I pointed out their errors on Twitter last weekend, they piled in with derision, vitriol and threats. They ribbed me for living in a middle-class neighbourhood, claiming that a supposed member of the elite like me knew nothing of the real Sweden. Discrediting me was vital: for them to succeed, Sweden has to be seen to fail.
Since the migrant crisis in 2015, the chorus egging Sweden on to fail has never been louder. During that crisis, Sweden took in 163,000 asylum seekers – more per capita than anywhere else in Europe.
And they can point to real problems. Absorbing and integrating genuine refugees is a massive challenge, and one where Sweden has been found wanting in the past. The discrepancy between unemployment rates for native born Swedes and immigrants is high. Sending back failed asylum seekers is difficult, especially when they go underground to avoid deportation. And Moroccan street children, who don't have the right to asylum, have been blamed for a spate of muggings in central Stockholm.
Then there are the parts of Sweden the far right like to call 'no-go zones'. And these urban areas with large numbers of migrants, like Stockholm's Rinkeby or Malmö's Herrgården, are rough. There are problems with gangs and guns.
Some Swedes might feel justified in saying that these problems never existed when their country was more homogeneous.
But if you're looking at Sweden from the outside, don't start thinking these places are worse than their counterparts in other European countries. And don't believe the lie that the police have abandoned them – actually, they're devoting more resources than before.
I know all of this. I've lived and worked as a journalist here for 14 years. For all the trolls accusing The Local of whitewashing, we've reported on Sweden's problems far more than any other English-language publication. But we also know that the problems are only part of the story.
I've travelled the length and breadth of Sweden, and I know it's an exceptionally well-run country with some daunting challenges. Yet for Farage's listeners, or readers of Breitbart or RT, the problems are the whole story. Sweden is the perfect country for the populists – familiar enough to resonate with their audiences, foreign enough for people not to be able to properly assess their claims. Handily for them, there are very few permanent foreign correspondents in Sweden to give a more balanced picture.
The far right wants you to think that Sweden as a whole is failing. It is not. In fact, it remains remarkably successful. Its economic growth is well above the European average and it tops lists of business-friendly countries. Trust in institutions and in fellow citizens is practically undiminished over the past three decades and is among the highest in the world. It's also one of the most gender-equal countries and has the highest life expectancies. Perhaps this is why it is always ranked as once of the world's happiest countries by the UN.
Farage, Breitbart and RT don't want you to know this – but this is far closer to the real Sweden than the country teetering on the abyss that they want you to see.