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11.10.2007

PM Vanhanen and self-censorship in Finland

Tags: Uncategorized — Author: @ 2:45 pm

Helsingin Sanomat columnist Martta Nieminen has some interesting comments about PM Vanhanen’s legal action against his former girlfriend and her publisher…

Could the worries of Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen (Centre) about the limits to his own privacy be the road to self-censorship of the media?

Will it lead to us journalists becoming wary of spreading information that might be objectionable to Vanhanen? Will we for instance henceforth refrain from any references to his romantic adventures before the rings have been exchanged or before Vanhanen has himself promised to publish news of his dating?

[...]If Vanhanen succeeds in erecting a wall around his private life, we are making a return to the days of President Urho Kekkonen, when the nation’s leaders went out womanising and gallivanting about without the slightest of press eyebrow-raising. It has only been the memoirs that came later that have shed some light on the interesting goings-on behind the curtain in the corridors of power.

If one follows the international media, it is plain to see that the private lives of leading political figures are most definitely not hidden behind walls of silence. Thus far, the Finnish media really quite have been kid-gloved.

In Britain, for instance, the Prime Minister would get laughed at if he were to demand a clarification of the limits of his privacy. Not in Finland, apparently.

  • issi

    Aw come on, didn’t we already discuss this through.
    Interesting comments my ass, this whole episode is the most useless waste of ink and paper HS has ever had.
    There would be much better examples of censorship and cover ups in finnish politics and economy, that chick is hardly an exploited or mistreated victim, would you say?
    And PLEASE don’t use the freedom-of-the-speech -card here.
    Media should concentrate in moore imprtant and interesting things than this.

  • T

    Which one is more important, freedom of speech or privacy? Both are important, sure, but sometimes they conflict. Phil seems to favor FOS, some guest bloggers privacy. But everybody seems to pick the line that best suits their personal interests.

    What I think is that PM’s love life is definitely more private than anybody’s tax records. Having a job is a public activity and participation in society, thus much of that information is, if not public, at least non-sensitive in nature. Having a GF is strictly a private matter.

  • S

    Finland is the most bizarre country in the world. A public figure threatens to sue the press for reporting about who he kisses, but does he care about his income and investments being published? Naw, that’s ok I guess.

    Only in the bizarre and backwards world known as “Finland”.

  • http://www.palun.blogspot.com giustino

    I am not sure if you want to emulate the British “press”. They write too often about Kylie’s bum and too little about Britain’s slums.

  • Punter

    How can one write “too often” about Kylie’s bum? ;) As long as photos accompany the article!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Passer-by

    I am not sure if you want to emulate the British “press”. They write too often about Kylie’s bum and too little about Britain’s slums.

    Good point. It’s pretty pathetic how always, in situations like this, someone cries out how in this or that country they do it like that. Now come on, not everything they do in the “West” like UK or France or Germany is good or right, actually it is pretty fucking far from it most of the time.

  • winter, “Yea, Proton Power, now in remission”

    Lets not bring the BBC in on this. Gads, have the BBC even figured out yet that we took Bagdad, like 7 years ago?

  • aet75

    “If one follows the international media, it is plain to see that the private lives of leading political figures are most definitely not hidden behind walls of silence.”

    Imho, private lives are called private for a reason. Things that have no bearing on the duties of officials or representatives do not belong under public scrutiny. These exposés do not serve anything other than to satisfy the petty curiosity and schadenfreude of the 7-päivää crowd.

    And Winter, I doubt that Passer-by was referring to the BBC by ‘British press’.

  • Freeridin’ Franklin

    Vanhanen most definitely does not want the press not to report his private life, as he is quite keen on exploiting it. He just wants to control what they write. For instance, we are graced with the information that our PM succeeded in losing weight by switching to Coke Zero from the regular kind – information which he quite willingly volunteered. Nor do I care to know about his real estate deals.

    You are what you drink, apparently.

  • http://www.axis-of-aevil.net/ hfb

    giustino – Kylie has a might fine bum…I’d rather see that than British council slums. :)

    And public figures should have no expectations of having private lives especially in a country as small as Finland where a scandal like this sells papers like hotcakes. You gotta eat your own dogfod as they say. *woof* Unless she lied, it’s all fair game.

  • Freeridin’ Franklin

    hfb:
    “giustino – Kylie has a might fine bum…I’d rather see that than British council slums.”

    Has being married to a Finn made you consider the other team? I take part, as Markku would say.

  • http://www.verosirkus.com Sirkuspelle

    In this Vanhanen case, it is a clear matter of freedom of speech. If Kuronen is lying and parading it as the truth, then that would be a problem. Otherwise, she has her freedom of speech. If the Prime Minister is jumping in and out of relationships what can he expect? If they try to restrict publishing of that book, I hope Kuronen makes a nice PDF file out of it and puts it in the Internet. I may not like what she writes and probably will never read it, but this is clearly “freedom of speech”.

    The freedom of speech and privacy conflict is the same excuse they use for publishing long lists of peoples’ incomes, tax percentages, capital income and municipalities in the form of a magazine called Veropörssi, believe it or not.

    In the case of personal data, publishing it is not a matter of freedom of speech. It is not someone expressing hisself or herself. Regarding this, the European Commission is taking your complaints seriously and registering them. http://www.verosirkus.com

  • http://www.verosirkus.com Sirkuspelle

    Hello Prime Minister Vanhanen,

    I know exactly how you feel regarding that book that is being published.
    I feel perhaps in a similar way about the Finnish government allowing the publishing of my name, salary, tax percentage, etc. in Veropörssi, which is floating around in the Internet nowadays. It does feel bad.

    Best regards,

  • http://www.verosirkus.com Sirkuspelle

    I actually sent that letter.

  • http://www.finlandforthought.net Phil

    I know exactly how you feel regarding that book that is being published.
    I feel perhaps in a similar way about the Finnish government allowing the publishing of my name, salary, tax percentage, etc. in Veropörssi, which is floating around in the Internet nowadays. It does feel bad.

    EXCELLENT!!!

  • http://www.finlandforthought.net Phil

    Which one is more important, freedom of speech or privacy? Both are important, sure, but sometimes they conflict. Phil seems to favor FOS, some guest bloggers privacy.

    How about those millions of biographies out there, are they invading all their subject’s privacy?

  • MW

    Nieminen’s article is just a series of non sequiturs. Vanhanen’s desire to shield his private life does not equate with media being compelled to self-censor when it comes to publishing negative information about him. Does Kuronen have the right to publish this book? Unfortunately, yes, despite the tastelessness of the act. But the goings-on of the Prime Minister’s personal relationships should not be the concern of the (non-tabloid) news media anyway, since it’s not news, it’s gossip. So this odious quote rings particularly false:

    “If Vanhanen succeeds in erecting a wall around his private life, we are making a return to the days of President Urho Kekkonen, when the nation’s leaders went out womanising and gallivanting about without the slightest of press eyebrow-raising.”

    I call bullshit. What inherent right does the press have to raise eyebrows over such matters? It’s not the duty of the press to report on whom a public figure is banging, except perhaps in cases of hypocrisy where said figure’s acts conflict directly with their public statements and positions (cf. Larry Craig, et al – and for the record I think Craig did absolutely nothing illegal).

    Vanhanen’s suit is ill-advised, unless he were suing for slander, in which case I’d wish him goodspeed. As a public, political move it’s rather clumsy, but it doesn’t constitute muzzling of journalists as concerns actual news issues. If Nieminen’s concern is whether Vanhanen can be taken seriously as a leader, she might apply her keen journalistic insight to such issues as drug/alcohol abuse, or other issues like shady business deals that might impair his ability make reasoned decisions as PM or act in the best interests of the populace. But if his marital woes are all she’s worried about being denied the right to report on, then really, she’s writing for the wrong color newspaper. As such, her argument is a tempest in a teapot with neither substance nor merit, and should best be used to line a birdcage.

  • http://www.finlandforthought.net Phil

    What inherent right does the press have to raise eyebrows over such matters?

    The ethics of the free press is an entirely separate debate. But I think if the people want to read about it (which they do), then the press should write about it. They’re answering to their customer’s demands.

  • MW

    “They’re answering to their customer’s demands.”

    Fine, but in that case they need to be plain about it. There is no inherent gain in publishing salacious details about a public figure’s private life, except perhaps in cases of political hypocrisy, but that’s the ethical argument Nieminen is making in this article. She’s the one conflating the issues of mdeia decorum and press freedom, not me.

    As a business concern, newspapers can publish crap that attracts readers in the name of selling copy, but they don’t get to posit it as an exercise in freedom of the press. Just because public figures lead their lives under scrutiny does not empower the press to expose every aspect of their behavior and masquerade it as serving the public good. Nieminen’s argument that there’s a slippery slope is specious, since A does not necessarily lead to B. As I see it, Vanhanen, however ineptly, is requesting a modicum a respect from the media toward his private life, one to which I think he’s entitled. Since it doesn’t have any bearing on his fitness, or lack thereof, to lead the country, Nieminen’s worries are misplaced and sensationalist at best, and holier-than-thou at worst.

  • Punter

    Looking at his recent track record with members of the fairer sex, I would say it shows a lot about not only his character but also his judgement of people and ability to relate or lack of. This does in a certain sense speak of his personal qualities and perhaps indirectly his ability to lead a party and nation.

  • MW

    Granted, and if the press can demonstrate a direct causal link between his personal foibles and his ability to govern, then fine, but it should be done through honest journalism, not gossip reporting. But her article, as it’s written, isn’t really arguing for that, is it?

    I’m not really saying that Vanhanen’s private life if of no concern to the public. It’s Nieminen’s shrill, misleading claims and fallacious reasoning that irritate me. The press’ freedom to report on whatever it sees fit should not be posited as an a priori good, irrespective of context and free of censure. Her claim that a request for respect constitutes muzzling is not warranted, and the way her case is presented caters to the prudish and moralistic reader. As such, the freedom to report on Vanhanen’s private life without actually showing whether and how it affects his ability to do his job isn’t journalism, it’s muckraking, which Nieminen is free to do, but not under the guise of serving the public good. Her argument that the media in other countries do it more and worse doesn’t make it right. It’s just a way of abdicating the obligation to report responsibly.

    Then again, Vanhanen went and shot himself in the foot with his ham-handed response to the issue. A simple, public request for people to respect his privacy would have given him the moral high ground, but it’s too late for that now.

  • Kulcha Vulcha

    MW: I agree with a lot of what you write, but am wondering how you feel about the mirror-image of this, to wit politicians using their (positive) private life for personal gain – read the lengthy linked piece on politics as entertainment – and then pulling the privacy card when the publicity is of a stinkier kind.

    On last night’s discussion programme Jakob Söderman clearly pointed out that polticians who “let the light in” for personal gain (interviews with the women’s rags, show-off-the-house stories, my new dog, etc, etc…) are consciously lowering their privacy shields and are therefore guilty of abject hypocrisy when they want to raise them again when the going gets tough. Erkki Tuomioja (who has steadfastly kept the lid on his – probably rather dull and stable – private life) was given as an example of a politician who has not gone down this road in wooing votes.

    I think most are agreed the book is probably short on taste and decorum, but I agree with Freeridin’ Franklin that our need to know about Matti Vanhanen’s soft-drink preferences or the size of his hand-built swimnming pool is probably less great than Matti’s own need to put out that he’s a regular guy and we should all love him. On the same grounds that I’d rather have a pilot who can fly my 747 than one whom I can go bowling with, I couldn’t give a warm shit about Vanhanen’s house or whether he’s someone I’d like to meet.

  • Drakon

    #20: Congrats, Punter, you did as good job as anyone could have in crystallizing that sentiment so prevalent among the Western, or say Anglo-American, political thought. Here in Finland it has rather been traditional to judge politicians “ability to lead a party and a nation” by their actual political decisions rather than their conduct of their private lives. Akin to the mainstram of Finnish political though, perhaps, it seems that our way of discussing the ability of politicians is, to put it shortly, more matter-of-fact and utilitarian. Leaders are expected to show their ability by leading the nation, not by leading exemplary private lives. Until recently, the moralist angle has been the near-exclusive domain of the tabloid press. Only recently has a push towards the politization of the private domain been strenghtened.

    Nieminen’s example of Kekkonen is rather indicative: I am yet to see a serious researcher or a commentator calling him a bad leader based on his nonstop womanizing, his heavy drinking or other aspects of his private life.

    In a certain big country of the greater Anglo-Saxon diaspora some years previously a leader was smoked out of office because of his shortcomings in this private life, even though his political decisions had been on a more or less sound footing. The current leader of the same country clings tenaciously to power even though he has constantly made bad, even disastrous political decisions. I’d rather not have that same kind of political climate come to prevail in Finland.

  • Kulcha Vulcha

    MW: Essentially, I’m referring to this concept:

    “So is a politician entitled to call off the publicity game? When a politician has, at times, given statements about his or her personal life, journalists see this as a sign that the door to that person’s private life is wide open to the media. The fact that the person in question is using his or her private affairs to gain positive publicity, provides a justification for drawing public attention to unpleasant events as well. Not all publicity is friendly, even though Eeva magazine might be.”

    http://www.hs.fi/english/article/Politics+goes+entertainment/1135223472392

    Once Pandora’s box is opened, and for all that I also agree wholeheartedly with Drakon’s views above, many Finnish politicians ARE opening the box to win votes on their personality rather than their political agenda or acumen, can you shut it again when you feel like it?

  • MW

    KV: You make a valid point, and to be honest, I don’t know how much or how little Vanahanen has exposed himself to the press in interviews and such, nor do I much care since I don’t pay attention to image-directed media outings. My main beef is with Nieminen’s fuss about what constitutes a chill on journalistic freedom. I can’t stand sensationalist commentary, and it smacks of a small-country hack reporter trying to make big news out of a non-issue, as if there’s ever going to be real press crackdown in a country as stable and consensus-oriented as Finland. “See? See how fragile press freedom is, even in the most demoncratic countries.” It’s absurd.

    I do agree that if you consider your private life private, then you should keep it that way. If you allow the press in a little for image-polishing purposes, then it’s tough to close the gate later. Even so, I don’t think it’s always out of line to decide that a line has been crossed and ask for restraint and some modicum of decency, and I think that’s what this is, however overblown. But Nieminen is trying to spin a CNN-style woe-betide-us scenario that isn’t called for in this instance.

  • http://www.verosirkus.com Sirkuspelle

    @17, @19, @21 MW: Have you considered writing? You have a very eloquent style and you use very colourful expressions that really wake up the pictoral imagination. Your style is very enjoyable to read.

  • MW

    Many thanks for the compliment, and I do write. I just like keep my various areas of public commentary separate, which is why I don’t link to my blog or website.

  • SS

    I have a gnawing feeling that in this blog there are a few PR people from both oppposition and administration, being paid to negate or agree with what is being written. Be that as it may, it is all for the best that comments published here may be seriously considered by relevant stakeholders to make this society at least a better place to live!

  • MW

    If you believe that, I have some magic beans here you might want to buy.

  • Anonymous

    “In Britain, for instance, the Prime Minister would get laughed at if he were to demand a clarification of the limits of his privacy. Not in Finland, apparently.”

    Waht are you talking about? Vanhis is the subject of jokes everywhere in Finland. Especially when it comes down to this Kuronen matter.

  • Helsinkian

    Winter, I watched your taking Baghdad LIVE ON BBC four years ago.

    As far as this Vanhanen issue goes, my sympathies were squarely on Vanhanen’s side until he sued not only Kuronen but the publisher as well. This time I think it’s Vanhanen himself causing more headlines with his private life. This is no longer so much about private life anymore at all but about the freedom of speech of the publisher. I hope Vanhanen loses the case but that said, I’m not one bit more interested in buying the Kuronen book than I was before.

  • Antti rn

    Well, Matti turned 50 a couple years ago. I bought my house from a guy also around his 50′s. After divorcing his wife, he was moving away with a lady about my age.

    A week later after the payment he came back with a brand new motorcycle to check we were OK…

    Erwin Scrödinger wrote his equations in rather similar circumstances. (I think he was on skiing trip with mistress) If you have a “viidenkympin villitys” making fool of yourself in love life, it does not necessarily go hand in hand with a bad professional judgement.

  • Freeridin’ Franklin

    Antti:
    Erwin Scrödinger wrote his equations in rather similar circumstances. (I think he was on skiing trip with mistress)

    For Schrödinger, the condition was more of a permanent kind. Despite his impressive credentials, he had difficulties getting a tenure in a number of places due to his polygamy. In addition he knocked up a few students. I understand that Einstein also liked the ladies. What I’d like to know is why none of this is taught at upper secondary physics classes.

  • Antti rn

    Not to mention Lagrange, happily marrying 17 years old daughter of his friend at 57.

    I guess if such details made it to upper secondary textbooks, there are always geezers complaining about lack of rigor in the book and then rigor is added up to rigor mortis.

  • http://www.axis-of-aevil.net/ hfb

    Drakon – So you’re saying that if dear old Vanhanen kept Putin waiting while getting a hummer and pleasuring a rather dumpy, fat chick with a cigar you wouldn’t bat an eye? Maybe Finland doesn’t matter much in the world political scene but when the leader of the so-call ‘free world’ who is reasonably attractive and who could fuck just about anyone he wanted chooses ‘that woman’ you have to really wonder if he’s really the right guy for the job.

    And if people in Finland didn’t care at all about the lives of public figures then the gossip mags would be out of business and nobody would have bought the book. All things considered, Vanhanen is a pretty dul guy…it just makes you wonder why he didn’t get a higher quality woman. Perhaps he wants to be the Clinton of Finland. :)

    Freeridin’ – Probably for the same reason that it is never mentioned that Einstein’s first wife was a formidible physicist as well and there has been some speculation that many of his theories may have come from her since he had nothing much going on after she died. He was also not very well respected by his peers. (and, no, I’ve not switched teams. :) )

  • Drakon

    hfb – if a quality journal or a qualified researcher of politics said Vanhanen’s antics are seriously endangering his ability to lead Finland, with several examples to boot, it would get my attention. But as long as such evidence is not forthcoming, politically he should be judged according to the success or failure of his political, “official” decisions.

    Vanhanen’s problem is not that he is trying to be “Clinton of Finland”, rather the polar opposite. Simply put, he is considered to be too modest, too timid, not living up to his status of his high office. To his detractors, it looks like he does not have the boldness and vision to be a great political leader. This does reflect also in the representations of his private life: he is a steady-bureucrat-family-guy-type, who seems to be in over his head when expected to be a smooth operator, great lover and “puolivallaton poikamies”.

    There is a certain mold the media is trying to place on our “highest powerbrokers”, a throwback to the testosterone-driven Kekkonen days perhaps, recently inhabited by that grumpy potentate Paavo Lipponen. Vanhanen has fallen short of these traditional expectations. When we add his own bumbling attempts to direct media attention, this is the public discussion we get.

    No, I did not say Finns “do not care about the lives of public figures”, that would of course be blatantly wrong. All I was saying was that we have not tended to judge the professional ability of such figures based on their personal lives. That is a distinction even you should be able to grasp as a representative of that American political culture I referred to in an earlier post.

  • http://www.axis-of-aevil.net/ hfb

    Drakon – But, see, even in something as basic as muckraking you take the stance that Finns are, of course, far too good and highminded to be interested in his personal life for something so base as being nosey which is precisely what it is and of course it colours the perception of his leadership and how he is perceived as a leader…even in Finland. It’s trashy, the very sort of thing people love to read about, gossip about and judge others about. He doesn’t appear to be much of a leader in either capacity.

    If it wasn’t making a serious impact on his image he wouldn’t be trying so desperately to put a stop to it.

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