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Thoughts on Eurovision 2017

Looking for messages from this year’s Eurovision? Maybe the best one is simply a Churchillian ‘never give up’. Portugal won, after 53 years of trying. Another one is ‘be true to yourself’: Salvador – and Luisa – Sobral did it their way. Eurovision winners usually do this: look through the list, and you usually see artists being original, not following a formula. The winning song, a gentle, jazzy ballad sung, without big presentation, by a bohemian-looking solo singer (also, of course, presentation in its own way), speaks volumes about our desire for a more reflective culture, our desire to back off from the angry world of internet trolls, Donald Trump, the more strident Brexiteers and the rising European far-right.

Eurovision is a presentation by the host nation, too. Ukraine was keen to show itself as (to quote host Oleksandr Skichko) a ‘tolerant, modern and totally open country’. This is a central point of Eurovision: to rally nations around the standard of core European values. It has been drawing nations in, viewer by viewer, since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The contest is also a signalling mechanism, whereby contestant countries convey their opinions of other countries. The best way to read these signals is to look at the difference between Jury (expert) and Public votes. In Eurovision, each nation’s result is decided half by a Jury of that nation’s music industry professionals, and half by its Public through televoting. The Juries are more likely to select on artistic merit, so when the Public disagree with them, it’s reasonable to assume that non-artistic considerations are involved. This assumption is borne out by the fact that Juries and Public agree about the top two or three songs and about the bottom ones, but diverge more in the middle. Some Eurovision songs really are dire; others really are outstanding; in the middle, it’s greyer. This year was no exception (or had one big exception). Who were the big winners and losers from the Public televote?

The biggest winner was Romania, with its yodel / rap entry, which the Public loved, putting it 5th, but which the professional Juries placed 15th. Moldova, Croatia, Hungary and Belgium did well with the Public too. This tends to confirm the notion of the Public televote as an Eastern European love-fest. Belgium is the exception here, but its 17-year-old Blanche was painfully nervous: I think those tough pro Juries looked down on her for that, but the Public felt sympathy for her. We certainly did, watching at home.

However, complaints about Eurovision bloc voting shouldn’t be taken too far. Romania got 20 points from Ireland, not a classic Eastern bloc country. It also picked up odd points from loads of countries: clearly everybody quite likes a bit of yodelling. Moldova’s biggest supporter was Australia, who gave it 22 points (Romania, its usual ally, only gave it 20).

The biggest shock in the announcement of the Public voting (which comes after the Jury votes have been announced), was Australia, whom the Juries had placed fourth, but for whom the Public only cast two votes (both from Denmark; none from the ungrateful UK), putting it second last on its list. Britain, Netherlands and Norway also did well with the judges and badly with the public.

The poor Public results for Oz and the UK could, I fear, be seen as a kind of anti-Anglo-Saxon reaction in the light of Brexit. (A still nastier interpretation of the Aussie result is that voters were racist, as Australia’s contestant is part Indigenous Australian. But he didn’t play on this, so I don’t think this is the reason.) More positively, the fact that Norway and the Netherlands also did badly could be useful information for the UK. Who are our real friends in Europe? Answer, fellow Northern Europeans. (Plus, if you look at the televote, Malta and Ireland, who usually give us a decent number of votes.) Right now, the UK needs friends.

The contest also often gives us a strange peek into an individual participant’s politics. Israel’s results came with the announcer telling us that his station was about to be closed down. This is a very bizarre story. After much debate, the staff of the IBA, which has been Israel’s state broadcaster since 1948, were effectively handed bin liners and ordered to stop work at once. The contest was actually the last thing they broadcast.

Quite who is responsible for this is a mystery, with accusations flying around. But it is another reminder of the unpleasantness and disrespect that seems to be infecting the modern world – exactly the sort of stuff that Europe’s voters told us, by picking Salvador Sobral’s gentle song, that they want less of.

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