Anders Mellbourn Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Sweden in the Post-9/11 World: Conversation with Anders Mellbourn, Director of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, April 19, 2004 by Harry Kreisler

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You said you were offered a position, and that led you into journalism. What was it about the possibilities in looking at these issues as a journalist and as an editorial writer and columnist, as opposed to pursuing, at this time earlier in your career, an academic way of approaching these problems?

Yes. It's a good question, and the answer is that coming from a middle-class teacher's family, it was natural for me to stay on and start graduate studies. If you were good in school you should try to get the Ph.D. and pursue academic studies. That was the norm, which I also accepted. I was not tempted to go into business school or law school, or something like in that. But I had always been interested in journalism, writing for student publications and things like that.

What attracted me was the idea of working with many things, maybe superficially, but concentrated at one time, and then seeing the results quickly. That is the great joy of journalism, that you can see the results of your work the day after it, when you are a writer, or a copy-editor, or something like that. You see the paper only a couple of hours later, what you did. Also, my temperament, maybe -- looking at the academic world, it would mean writing a book every three or four years, sitting in the library. I did not have, and I still do not have the stamina to stay with one theme very deeply for several years, which you have to do in academia.

But I always tried to keep in touch with it. Of course, where I'm now working, it's more in the academic world, and it's very little in the journalistic world. But also when I was in the news I had occasional lectures and met with people. It was one way of keeping up with my academic contacts, not the least here at Berkeley, because some of my professors had pretty good relations at Berkeley, and when they came to Stockholm when I was at the paper I was invited to meet them, and I interviewed them, and things like that. So among my journalistic colleagues, I was always seen as an academic practicing journalism, even if they supported my way even to the editorship. I had a certain profile compared to my friends and colleagues in the paper.

You mentioned that as a young scholar you worked on the relationship between bureaucracy and politics. I'm curious what your thoughts are about the positive role that the press makes to policy debates, and how that role has evolved. Is it clarifying the debate (in addition, obviously, to reporting the news) and is that clarification of issues -- for example, in foreign policy -- its most important and useful contribution? And has that role evolved over time?

Print journalism is my experience. Maybe that is now the declining part of journalism, but it is the starting point of journalism, print journalism and political journalism. The news aside -- my last ten years in journalism was very much in the news department -- but if you look at the development of news content at quality newspapers, they have moved quite a lot from news to commentary analysis. The rationale is that you now get the news directly through, first, radio, then television, and now, of course, through the 'Net, so you have immediate access to sources and you see things when they happen. So in order to stay relevant, the papers have to stress analysis and deeper feature stories and things like that. I think that has raised the quality of journalism, or did, at least, until rather recently. Sometimes we are too pessimistic about that. If you look at the remaining quality papers, they still have high quality in many areas.

Then there are other complications. This may be a very internal discussion in the press, but this emphasis of giving commentary now seems to be a problem, because it's also getting into the news media, in the sense that you get the commentary before you get the facts. I have found this more and more distressing, especially since I do not work in the area any longer. If I switch on the radio in the morning and I want to hear the results of American primaries, and I immediately get the commentary that Kerry was strengthened by this and this and this, okay, I know that people need that, but I need the figures, perhaps because I [already] know a little more [about the analysis] than others.

There are many other areas where people get the commentary before they get the facts. It forces the consumer, or the reader, the viewer, the listener, to [accept the] analysis, because it's not supplementary to the facts. In order to be relevant, commentary has to help the reader or the viewer to form an opinion of his own. I now see [a reaction] to this deepening of journalism; maybe they should go back to more direct reporting as well, because people want the full story.

Let's talk a little now about the role that the press has played in this. We're in a new international era after 9/11, and this may be a good time before we actually get into the nature of the threat and so on to talk about the grade you would give journalists generally, in United States and Britain and your own country, in helping us understand better the problem of terrorism, the problems involved in the Iraq War, and so on. There's a whole new set of problems, and the press has to assume a more important role. Is it a problem that we're not getting the facts in that kind of reporting?

If you would blame the media, we could perhaps say that they are not independent enough. Their strengths and weaknesses reflect the strengths and weaknesses in the analyses that the policy makers have. If you look at the European press, perhaps it over-emphasizes the structural aspects -- "this is a response to poverty" and things like that. But the more simple version of that has also been refuted. There has been quite a lively debate, both on the so-called cultural pages and op-ed pages, and also in [the news section], that decently reflect the complexities.

You could say that if the terrorist threat of the magnitude we saw on 9/11 was underestimated by the U.S. administration -- which it obviously was, regardless of what you think about Richard Clarke's book -- of course, that was shared by the press. The terrorist [threat] is still a problem with the press, and with the media on the whole.

The problem, sometimes, is a gap between daily reporting and commentary, that sometimes the questions from the deeper discussions don't get into the press conferences, or are forgotten in the pursuit of daily events. The development of news journalism coming out with news stories every half-hour (or if you are on the 'Net it's continuous) makes it hard to get [the broader view]. It's the problem where you see so many trees, you never see the forest. This is an observation that I share with many others.

You have this discussion here [in the U.S.], is the press to the left or to the right, which you have in all countries. I think people who are in the media tend to be more leftist, not because of any manipulation or grand conspiracy, but it's just if you are less interested in power positions within the bureaucracy or especially in business, or if you are a little more Bohemian in your lifestyle and you are open to ideas or you take certain risks, it's usually related. Many of those qualities are related to the qualities that are good in journalism.

When looking at the Iraq [War] developments, if you look at the full picture, most of the questions are there. But are they there at the very right moment? That, I think, is a problem.

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