9 August 2005 (Updated 1 August 2006)

The insults keep coming

By Tapani Lausti

British journalists are often at their worst when they write about "lesser" countries. The tone more often than not is patronising. Lack of familiarity is turned into a feeling of superiority. A few years ago I had some fun analysing an article which had decided that the Finns donít have a sense of irony (see Reflections from an irony-free country).

Recently a British journalist informed his readers in a "knowledgeable" way that there is not much Finnish film history to talk about. I suppose it is perfectly possible that the journalist had done serious research on the subject and decided that Finnish films of the past are rubbish. I suspect, however, that the fact that he didnít know much about the history of Finnish film industry was thoughtlessly turned into a conclusion that there is hardly anything to know.

And the insults keep coming. In a leading article, The Guardian recently wrote of Nokiaís success. (From ragbag to riches, 3 August 2005). I quote: "Why did this undynamic European country for so long overshadowed by the Soviet Union suddenly produce such a world-beating company?"

Of course, one cannot complain about the lack of explanation since the article was a short commentary. Yet, one is intrigued. What is Finland being compared with? Britain? Sweden? How does being an undynamic country manifest itself. I've been racking my brain to identify a country which could safely be described as "undynamic". I couldnít think of a single one. Perhaps this is the "not-in-the-news" syndrome. A country which cannot produce a constant flow of news-worthy items must be dull and — undynamic.

"So long overshadowed by the Soviet Union." Well, there is a history to this image. I remember how The Guardianís stringer in Helsinki in the 70s used to complain to me that the only stories he could get the paper to publish had to offer some clear if not overblown examples of Soviet interference in Finnish affairs. The stories had to fit preconceived ideas.

Certainly there were such examples of interference and the Finns are currently once more debating how serious the Soviet threat really was (see Historical hallucinations). However, one can turn the story around and ask how was it that a small country, bullied occasionally by its big neighbour, was able to retain its independent institutions and political system. Eastern European countries, which really were Soviet satellites, watched Finnish politics with fascination. They hoped that they could in some way be "Finlandised".

As a citizen of a small country I often have a feeling that we look out through a one-way mirror. We watch carefully what is happening elsewhere and we know enough foreign languages to be able to get a pretty good picture. Journalists on the other side, trying to see through that one-way mirror, should be very careful about their conclusions, especially when there exists a kind of linguistic iron curtain. In a world where international communication is dominated by English, a small country with a peculiar language of its own suffers from a seriously unlevel-playing field.

P.S. As the news of Finland's victory in the 2006 Eurovision song contest spread around the world, I found this gem in one British newspaper: "The words 'music' and 'Finland' have rarely been associated since the death of Sibelius in 1957, a year after the birth of the Eurovision Song Contest (although the two events were not related)." (Ben Fenton, Oh Lordi! Finn metal is new face of Eurovision, The Daily Telegraph, 22 May 2006)


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