Stieg Larsson, 5th Estate forerunner, marginalised as a media critic

As a storytelling campaigner, Stieg Larsson puts Ayn Rand in the shade. Never mind that there was a time when only the Bible outsold her Atlas Shrugged. Though their diametrically opposite political affiliations would have made them furious about being mentioned in the same sentence, I suspect that they would have been equally enthusiastic about the possibilities of post-print publishing. Would they have had an easier time with the layout software I am still learning to use? Reader: please be patient with my M. C. Escher-esque menus and attempts at tables of contents as I await answers from helpers.

We of the 4th Estate, offspring of the Gutenberg press, are certainly using the internet. Nearly every print newspaper has a web site. But we are doing our best to downplay the shift in power to our successors in the 5th Estate, when we should – surely – be reorienting publishing to reflect it, to the last serif and pixel.

Networked individuals are becoming an independent source of social and political accountability – a Fifth Estate […]. The crowd has become an independent power – even independent from the press.

Until last month’s interview in Spiegel Online, practically no ranking newspaper or magazine had ever mentioned the 5th Estate or William Dutton, the founding director of the Oxford Internet Institute*, which has a celebration planned for its tenth birthday later this month. Those are his words – published in a 2007 paper – I have quoted in that clip. Although his term for the power shift is short, snappy and a perfect encapsulation of the internet’s implications for journalism and publishing, the mainstream media persist in referring instead to the rise of ‘the blogosphere’ – with its connotations of unwashed and unlettered barbarians at the gate. That is a remarkable mischaracterisation, considering that the most distinguished professionals who care about social justice – and many of those who do not – are present somewhere on the net.

4th Estate faces are also being averted from the most important reason why 50 million readers around the world have made Stieg Larsson and his Millennium Trilogy a posthumous publishing sensation. He was writing closely fact-based social and political criticism – set in Sweden, but applicable everywhere – cleverly disguised as Scandinavian-noir thrillers.

Last year, in a New York Times review, Michiko Kakutani did briefly mention that Mikael Blomkvist, the hero of the series, is driven by ‘a moral imperative […] to slash away at the tentacles of governmental, corporate and judicial corruption that he sees strangling the country.’ But most of her paragraphs focused on a single character, the beguiling, computer-hacking vigilante and anti-heroine, Lisbeth Salander. Just as I was, in my initial reaction to Larsson’s saga, Tim Parks – writing in the New York Review of Books in June – was most struck by its implications for sexual politics. Only near the end of his essay, almost as an afterthought, does he say that it is ‘the ingenuousness and sincerity of Larsson’s engagement with good and evil that give the trilogy its power to attract so many millions of people.’

Respected old media commentators have chosen to overlook what Eva Gabrielsson, Larsson’s partner for three decades, points out in Stieg and Me:

The Millennium Trilogy accuses the media of gradually abdicating their responsibilities towards society throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Investigative journalists had turned away from social problems, and financial journalists treated CEOs like rock stars …

That was the Larsson message that most impressed me, because of events dominating the news, when – with a belatedness that would do Rip van Winkle credit – I finally discovered who he was. In July, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo had caught my eye when I raced into my library to find something to listen to on a car journey of seven hundred miles. I was stunned by the parallels between the targets of his wrath and the lesson for us all at the heart of the London phone hacking scandal: you cannot be paranoid enough about the abuse of power at the top. As William Dutton would put it to Spiegel, in discussing the internet’s usefulness for initiating political movements,

We can see that, for example, in the scandal over Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World — which is absolutely stunning stuff. There had been rumors for years over people hacking into private voicemail, but no one had seriously examined the issue. The media had become too entangled with politicians…

A few days earlier, David Carr concluded a stirring NYT column on the subject by observing that, on the net,

… social media had roamed wild and free across the story, punching a hole in the tiny clubhouse that had been running the country. Democracy […] has broken out in Britain.

A long hop and skip from Fleet Street, Larsson’s career and his stories add up to recursive confirmation of the 5th Estate’s power to give a voice to those shut out by its predecessor; people who might have something important to tell us.

Denied a place in a Swedish journalism school, according to two chroniclers of his career, he was forced to enter publishing as ‘a graphic designer’. Eva Gabrielsson says that even after he was allowed to make journalistic contributions at the Swedish news agency that employed him for twenty years, he was repeatedly rejected as a fully-fledged journalist with the explanation that ‘Stieg Larsson cannot write’. She hints that his refusal to give up came from his identification with the grandparents with whom he spent his early childhood, who did not meekly accept being marginalised as poor rural folk.

He co-founded Expo, an activist magazine that hobbled along on a shoestring budget, to get the stories he thought important into the world. Though major media – certainly in the English-speaking world – have failed to react to what he revealed about their failings, then and now, his books have let him say what he felt needed saying without their help.

Larsson died of brutal overwork that had led him to neglect his health, and perhaps of the exhaustion peculiar to lonely, extended struggles for causes with insufficient moral or financial support.

Surely the vast audience his work found after his death can – and must – help to ease the path of excluded writers like him.

Restructuring media for the 5th estate would be a good start. My own tentative proposal for an experiment in re-arranging media ownership was written after a rare Whitehall mandarin with a practical streak judged the scheme workable – if a bit outlandish, at first glance – and sent me to the Oxford Internet Institute. He guessed – correctly – that I would find sympathetic listeners in that spot. You can read, at no cost, not just about the scheme, but frank commentaries on it from four publishing luminaries here, as well as a summary, on this very site.

The proposal is crying out for help with refining its details. Reports from readers of anything closely resembling it being tried out – or that have been attempted elsewhere – will also be welcome. Messages to postgutenberg@gmail.com, please.

Cheryll Barron

* … admittedly, one reason for this failure could be summed up in the reaction to news of the OII’s existence from an American friend who was a student at Magdalen in the 1980s: ‘Is there really an Oxford Internet Institute? They were still working on plumbing and electricity when last I checked.’ To which the director’s swift response – after I pasted the remark into a note to him – was: ‘Thanks, but we were the first university with a printing press.’

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5 thoughts on “Stieg Larsson, 5th Estate forerunner, marginalised as a media critic

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