What the Swedish state has not achieved in 35 years until today, Netflix needs in the new series The unlikely killer just ten seconds. First the viewer sees the board “Based on an unsolved crime”. Then two shots rang out and the broadcaster solved the crime: the audience looked at the killer, who was breathing hard on a cold night. The Prime Minister of Sweden lies dying on the floor in a pool of blood. His wife screams. In the Netflix world, at least, the murder of Olof Palme has been solved from the first minute.
It was probably no wonder that the series was going to be an excitement in Sweden. On February 28 of this year it was 35 years ago that the Social Democratic Prime Minister Olof Palme was murdered in the center of Stockholm with two shots in the back on the street. He had just come out of the cinema with his wife Lisbeth. The anniversary this year was a special one: the first after the murder that was no longer under investigation.
Prosecutor Krister Petersson stopped the investigation last year after more than 10,000 interrogations after the PKK, the CIA, the South Africans and neo-Nazis were brought into play as possible perpetrators. But it is still true today: The murder and the amateurish police work over the years have grown into a national trauma, an “open wound that could never be healed,” as the incumbent Prime Minister Stefan Löfven says.
The prosecutor Petersson presented Stig Engström as a perpetrator without providing any new evidence
When Petersson went public in June of last year, he had previously aroused high expectations that he would solve the riddle. From the point of view of many Swedes, however, it turned out to be “the most disappointing press conference in the history of press conferences,” as one magazine wrote. Yes, Petersson presented a possible perpetrator: Stig Engström, a graphic designer for Skandia insurance with alcohol and money problems, sports shooter, politically right. Known to Swedes as “Skandiamann”, one of the people who was there that night and who over the years had forced himself on the media as an alleged witness to the murder.
But Prosecutor Petersson brought no new evidence, no new witnesses, no compelling motive. He based his assessment solely on a reinterpretation of the evidence. “We cannot avoid Stig Engström as a suspected perpetrator,” he said. Engström himself could no longer comment on the allegations; he had died in 2000. Afterwards, criticism pelted the public prosecutor from all sides in a survey by the Swedish daily newspaper only 19 percent of those surveyed said they found the theory convincing.
Stig Engström had previously been identified as a possible perpetrator in a highly acclaimed book by investigative journalist Thomas Pettersson published in 2018. It is this book, The Unlikely Murderer, that is based on the Netflix series of the same name.
The five-part series, The Leadership, is a strong piece of television fiction, as most reviewers in Sweden agreed on. “Cruelly well done” judged Today’s News: if you can immerse yourself in wintry Stockholm in the 1980s, in the bridge-playing, palm-hating society of the bourgeois suburb of Täby, historically accurate in the portrayal of the egomaniacal investigator Hans Holmer (Mikael Persbrandt), who pushes the obvious aside to continue tinkering with conspiracy theories.
Soon after the broadcast began in Sweden, the debate broke out
Actor Robert Gustavsson, who played Stig Engström, had been sitting with the Palme couple in the Grand Kino on that February night, just a few minutes before the murder – a mixture of reality and fiction that made Netflix PR even more ticklish in advance helped. The show’s Stig Engström is a drunkard, uptight wannabe, bullied and ridiculed. The reviewer of the Swedish daily newspaper admitted that, unlike many Swedes, she had already found the Stig Engström thesis “irresistible” at the public prosecutor’s presentation last year: “The plump advertising man from Täby, a Tom Ripley figure as a potential murderer – a sociopathic owl who simply just … kills accidentally. “
Now, unlike Tom Ripley, Stig Engström is not a literary figure, not an invention of Patricia Highsmith. Engström lived. He has a living ex-wife and acquaintances who also appear on the series, often anything but beneficial. Therefore, soon after the broadcast began, the debate broke out in Sweden. Is it allowed to accuse a dead person – who has never been tried for it – with murder? With no evidence? Does a broadcaster have to adhere to the presumption of innocence? Is it enough if, while watching five hours of television entertainment about a creepy, nasty murderer named Stig Engström in the credits after each episode, Netflix submits the following two sentences: “It has not been proven that Stig Engström was the Palme murderer. But he was suspected”?
The producer turns the prosecutor and Netflix into accomplices in the Stig Engström case
The series producer, Jenny Stjernströmer Björk, defended herself Today’s News Opposite, the series only presents a theory: “It does not purport to tell the truth or to present a solution.” It is the fictional reappraisal of the thesis that Sweden’s chief prosecutor Krister Petersson presented as the most likely last year. The producer makes the prosecutor and Netflix accomplices in the Stig Engström case – but prosecutor Petersson had already been violently attacked for his thesis. The parliamentary ombudsman, Per Lennerbrant, had accused him of blatant “violation of the constitutional presumption of innocence”.
An accusation that now also hits Netflix: The authorities in Stockholm received a complaint for “defamation of a deceased”. Now the Swedish media are debating what chance the complaint has: In Sweden only the Chancellor of Justice, the government ombudsman, is allowed to initiate such media law prosecution. Most observers believe that the hurdles are too high. The Chancellor of Justice has not yet commented on this.
The media ethical debate continues. Some warn that the younger generation in particular will get their history on the Olof Palme case from Netflix in the future. And with it, said the newspaper Sydsvenskan, Fact fanatics could find “more lies per second in the series than with ‘Riks'” – Riks is the internet propaganda channel of the right-wing populist Sweden Democrats. The liberal Today’s News wrote in an editorial that it does not help Netflix to rely on prosecutor Petersson. In naming the dead Engstrom as a likely murderer, the state was already guilty of an “unusually gross failure”: “This is not how the script for Sweden’s trauma should look like.”