Swedish Public TV in the
Service of the White House
”Swedish legislation protects children from toy
advertising,and the entire population from alcohol
and tobacco advertising. But when it comes to stealthy
advertising for the United States’ violently consolidated
world dominion, the consequences are overlooked.”
It is entirely acceptable for Swedish Public Television (SVT) to convey propaganda in support of the United States’ world dominion, as long as it is labelled as ”drama and fiction”. And that is permissible even with a programme in which former U.S. presidents and government officials recount their experiences in the White House, all the while drawing parallels between real events in which they were involved and the ”fictional” events depicted in the TV series.

So can one interpret a ruling of Sweden’s Radio & TV Review Board in response to a formal complaint regarding the TV series, ”The West Wing”, which was submitted by Al Burke, a former U.S. citizen. He is the editor of Nordic News Network, but filed the complaint as a private citizen of Sweden.

”The Review Board’s ruling is remarkable in several respects,” observes Al Burke, ”not least because it completely disregards the most important points of the complaint. One explanation for that might be that the ruling was prepared by a Board official who had previously displayed an ill-tempered unwillingness to hear the kinds of argument that are presented in the complaint.” (See endnote.)

The complaint begins thus: ”Under the guise of pure entertainment, the TV series ’The West Wing’, which is imported from the United States, conveys pure propaganda which justifies the crimes against international law and human rights that the U.S. now commits in order to consolidate its global dominion and, by falsifying history, obscures crimes committed by the superpower in the past.”

Justifying "preventive war"

That statement is illustrated with, among other things, an episode broadcast by SVT on 31 March 2003, which justifies the U.S. government’s successful plan to assassinate a foreign country’s defence minister-- a ”preventive measure” of the sort which in a larger context is referred to as preventive war.

”The entire episode was, as usual, staged and enacted in a very skilful and convincing manner,” notes the complaint. ”Was a significant portion of SVT’s audience thereby influenced in the direction which the programme’s producers clearly wanted to lead them? I don’t know, and neither does SVT.

”But it is a question that deserves consideration,” points out the complaint, ”especially since the business with the evil Arab is not an isolated case. The superpower’s self-evident right to do pretty much whatever it likes in the world in order to protect and promote its interests is a basic theme of the entire series. The United States is consistently portrayed as a well-meaning nation with only good intentions. It is always others who commit awful deeds with evil intent. In contrast, the U.S. is either an innocent victim or a protector of the wretched of the earth.”

The self-evident right of the United States to rule the world and arbitrarily decide who shall live and who shall die is repeatedly strengthened with script elements that obscure or falsify the history of the superpower’s many serious crimes in Indochina, Latin America and other places. This is probably not a major problem for those who are well-informed about the real history, suggests Al Burke. ”But,” he asks, ”how many in SVT’s audience have got around to learning about such issues? Hardly more than a minority, I should think, especially among young people. How could they be expected to know? Which Swedish media or schools make an effort to convey such knowledge? Not SVT, in any event.”


According to the Review Board’s ruling, such questions are irrelevant in this context because ”the series, ’The West Wing’, belongs to the programme category of drama and fiction. The demands for impartiality and accuracy that are included in SVT’s broadcasting licence are not, as a rule, applied to programmes with fictional, dramatic content.”

However, that line of reasoning does not respond to the complaint, which argues that the customary distinction between drama/fiction and news/documentaries has no significance in this context: ”It has long been known that propaganda which is skilfully woven into an entertainment programme is at least as effective as that which is presented in news programmes. Often it is even more effective since, in that type of packaging, it functions at a subconscious level.

”Further, ’The West Wing’ involves an obvious attempt to blur the distinction between fiction and reality. This was made very clear in the final episode of the spring 2003 season, in which several former U.S. presidents and diverse associates underlined the parallels between the ’fictional’ events in the TV programme and the actual events in which they, themselves, had been involved. Among the participants in that episode were presidents Ford, Carter and Clinton, as well as high-ranking government officials such as Henry Kissinger.”

To mix fiction together with reality has become a trend within the TV branch, notes the complaint. ”In short, propaganda is propaganda, whether or not it is packaged as fiction. As mentioned, it can be even more effective in such a guise.”

The entertaining indoctrination in the blessings and the necessity of the superpower’s world dominion continues in the current season, notes Al Burke. He relates that the most recent episode, for example, justified the real White House’s policy of so-called preventive war by presenting it as a purely humanitarian measure. This was illustrated with a Rwanda-like genocide which the fictional president decides to halt by means of military intervention. In point of fact, however, the Clinton administration-- on whose experience the series is largely based-- not only refrained from intervening in the real Rwanda, but also prevented the United Nations from taking action (see National Security Archive). The reason was that it was not in the superpower’s interest to do anything about that genocide.

Heads in the sand

”It is hardly unusual or surprising that the media of a superpower should spread its propaganda around the world by any means available, including ’drama and fiction’,” observes Al Burke. ”The question is whether the media of other nations, most especially their public-service channels, should routinely and uncritically assist in such a process. That is a question of obvious significance for a country like Sweden. Thus far, however, the responsible authorities have kept their heads firmly stuck in the sand.”

What are the potential consequences involved? The complaint offers the following examples:
  • A significant portion of the Swedish people are misled and/or lack important knowledge about the greatest military, political and economic power of all time, which influences the entire world today.
  • People are more easily duped by Swedish politicians who consciously or unconsciously do the superpower’s bidding.
  • Resistance to the United States’ crimes against international law and human rights is weakened.
Opportunity to enlighten

The point is not to censor or discontinue the programme, stresses Al Burke in the complaint: ”On the contrary, I feel that it provides an excellent opportunity to shed light on the techniques of modern propaganda and the real history of U.S. foreign policy. But in that case, it is necessary to invest in such enlightenment. It would require adequate resources and a well-conceived strategy for refuting the kind of clever and entertaining propaganda that ’The West Wing’ exemplifies.”

Previous attempts to take up these issues with SVT’s management have been met with silence, a tactic that Al Burke feels is extremely irresponsible. ”This is no innocent little game,” he emphasizes. ”The kind of clever propaganda that ’The West Wing’ conveys is essential to the United States’ exercise of global power. The lack of response also illustrates the disturbing double standard that applies to the United States. Imagine what kind of reaction there would be to a similar TV series glorifying violations of international law and human rights by China, ’the Muslim world’ or any other power on earth.”

The complaint submitted to the Radio & TV Review Board points out that, ”Swedish legislation protects children from toy advertising, and the entire population from alcohol and tobacco advertising. But when it comes to stealthy advertising for the United States’ violently consolidated world dominion, the potential consequences are overlooked. It is certainly very strange.”

Bo Hall, Chairman  
Nordic News Network  
9 February 2004  

Endnote: Roughly one year prior to submission of the complaint to the Review Board, the official who processed it was invited to a discussion led by Al Burke. On that occasion, he reacted so furiously to Burke’s analysis of U.S. foreign policy that the others present were moved to reprimand him. But he was unable to control himself, and in the end had to leave the room.

”A more inappropriate reviewer of my complaint would thus be impossible to imagine,” observes Al Burke. ”Consequently, I was very surprised to learn that he had not recused himself from this case. That suggests, in turn, a number of questions relating to censorship and propaganda within Swedish public service. For one thing, it has to be asked how such a clearly inappropriate person can be allowed to influence such important matters. Another obvious question is whether there are more such individuals occupying key positions within SVT and society, in general. Unfortunately, there is good reason to believe that the problem is not limited to the Radio & TV Review Board.” (See ”Open Letter to Swedish Public Television”.)
Related materials
The full texts of the formal complaint and the Review Board's ruling are contained in a PDF document; to access, click here. Also included are the above text and a Swedish translation.