The self-disciplinary system of the Swedish press is not based on legislation. It is entirely voluntary and wholly financed by four press organisations: The Swedish Newspaper Publishers’ Association, The Magazine Publishers’ Association, The Swedish Union of Journalists and The National Press Club. These organisations are also responsible for drawing up the Code of Ethics for Press, Radio and Television in Sweden.
The Swedish Press Council (Pressens Opinionsnämnd, PON), founded in 1916, is the oldest tribunal of its kind in the world. The Press Council is composed of a judge, who acts as chairman, one representative from each of the above-mentioned press organisations and three representatives of the general public who are not allowed to have any ties to the newspaper business or to the press organisations.
The office of the Press Ombudsman (Allmänhetens Pressombudsman, PO) was established in 1969. Its holder is appointed by a special committee consisting of the Chief Parliamentary Ombudsman (JO), the chairman of the Swedish Bar Association and the chairman of the National Press Club.
Before the establishment of the office of the Press Ombudsman, complaints regarding violations of good journalistic practice were filed with the Press Council. Nowadays the complaints are first handled by the Press ombudsman, who is also empowered to take up matters on his own initiative, provided that the person or persons concerned are in agreement.
Any interested members of the public can lodge a complaint with the PO against newspaper items they regard as a violation of good journalistic practice. But the person to whom the article relates must provide written consent if the complaint is to result in formal criticism of the newspaper.
When a complaint is filed, PO’s task is to ascertain whether it can be dealt with by a factual correction or a reply from the affected person published in the newspaper concerned. PO may contact the newspaper for this purpose. If the matter cannot be settled in this way, the Press Ombudsman may undertake an inquiry if he suspects that the rules of good journalistic practice have been violated. He will then ask the newspaper’s editor-in-chief to answer to the allegations of the complainant. That person will in his turn be offered the opportunity to comment on the newspaper’s reply. Complaints must as a rule be filed within three months of the original publication.
Once the inquiry is concluded, PO has two alternatives: either (1) the matter is not considered to warrant formal criticism of the newspaper, or (2) the evidence obtained is weighty enough to warrant decision by the Press Council.
If PO writes off a complaint (option 1) the complainant may appeal that decision directly to the Press Council. Nothing prevents the complainant from taking the matter to a regular court of law after review by PO and the Press Council.
To file a complaint with PO is free of charge. PO also answers queries from the general public on matters of press ethics.
A newspaper that has been found to violate good journalistic practice is expected to publish the written decision of the Press Council. It shall also pay an administrative fine.
In recent years, 350-400 complaints have been registered annually. These often concern coverage of criminal matters and invasion of privacy. About 30% of the complaints have been reviewed by the Press Council either on PO’s demand or, if PO has written off the case, on appeal by the complainant. The remainder, which constitute the large majority of complaints, have been written off for various reasons, e.g. because the complaints were unsubstantiated or the newspaper printed a correction or a reply. 10-15% of all complaints have resulted in formal criticism of the newspaper in question by the Press Council.