I didn’t bother writing a post mortem article last year, as the Contest was largely clean and the top-4 went to form, but having recovered from my Stockholm exhaustion – and with a growing feeling of dismay – I felt compelled to write about one of the dirtiest Contests in recent memory.
Back in 2013 and 2014, it was thoroughly depressing to see certain nations’ scoring data while witnessing the unfailing inertia from within the EBU to legislate against power voting and jury points trading. As I suggested in 2014, there are a group of nations operating an underground cartel for their own financial or megalomaniacal ambitions. National juries are just lackeys of their respective broadcasters in certain quarters of Europe, and in some nations, the broadcasters are arms of the government. How can we possibly expect anything other than a manipulated result in what is meant to be fair Contest celebrating music, peace and freedom of expression?
Politics is back:
The childish, post-show hissy fit from Russia demonstrates a misplaced sense of entitlement. As does the petition and the subsequent Russia Today pieces, which shows a nation deeply at odds with the spirit of Coming Together – or for that matter, Building Bridges. Just like the Olympic doping scandal engulfing their athletics team, it appears Russia wants to win at all costs to serve the megalomaniacal ambitions of their government. They had the biggest budget and blew it forming a Eurovision dream team consisting of Philipp Kirkorov, Dimitris Kontopoulos and Fokas Evangelinos. The song was catchy, but it lacked originality and an emotional climax, so a bank-busting stage show was devised to coverup its shortcomings. Fokas conceived an over-complicated, derivative projection-concept that exuded typical Russian power and dominance, yet it was derided by national juries and commentators for its desperation and style over substance approach.
Russia even went as far as manipulating the betting markets. This is nothing new as various nations have taken to Betfair to cement a high position for PR exposure – being called ‘the bookies favourite’ during the final does inspire a herd mentality, which could positively affect the televote. This is commonly referred to as using a bot and it involves a person or computer program continually buying equity to keep a price artificially low. I commented that the Russian price was being manipulated at various times over the last three months, as the odds appeared to shorten every weekend after a gradual drift during the week. Even after Sergey’s poor first rehearsal the price shortened!
During Jamala’s semi-final 2 appearance, Russia’s price shortened and all of Ukraine’s lay boxes were taken on Betfair in one foul swoop. To me, this was another clear sign of manipulation from Russia, as Ukraine’s price quickly recovered to its original position. As I have previously asserted ad nauseam, Russia were always going to struggle to make the jury top-5. As it transpired, they tied with Belgium in 5th, with Bulgaria three points adrift in 7th, yet it took an age for the real money to push Russia’s price out to beyond 10/1. My book was geared around keeping the Russian false-favourite red, and in the end, I had no reason to buy them back despite the result being dangerously close.
Shortly after losing to their Ukrainian rivals, a butthurt Kirkorov took to Instagram in an unprofessional outburst demanding the juries’ influence be reduced to 25% due to politcal voting against Russia. Conveniently, Kirkorov overlooked the fact that his own jury ranked Ukraine 24th out of 26th. If Russia wants to bring politics into the debate, maybe their focus should start at home. Last year Italy accepted defeat gracefully despite storming the televote, yet lost in a similar fashion to Sergey owing to a low jury ranking. I must also add that Sergey’s behaviour since the final has been exemplary.
There are also unofficial reports circulating that Russia are considering withdrawing from next year’s Contest. Good riddance, I say. You’re welcome to take part, but don’t go all Turkey on us when you’re on the wrong end of the jury decision.
Had last year’s scoring rules been applied, Russia would have remained in 3rd but Australia would have secured a fairly comfortable victory. I can’t help feel that had Australia won, we wouldn’t have had to endure this Russian backlash against what was deeply political song. Having allowed 1944 to compete, the EBU have opened the door to future political songs, albeit disguised under similarly tenuous titles.
The last song to be disqualified over politics was We Don’t Wanna Put In from Georgia in 2009. It was a catchy little disco number aimed at Russia’s leader:
We don’t wanna put in the negative move
It’s killin’ the groove
I’m a-tryin’ to shoot in some disco tonight
Boogie with you
Let’s compare that to 1944, which concerns the deportation of the Crimean Tatars by the Soviet Union at the hands of Joseph Stalin:
When strangers are coming
They come to your house
They kill you all
We’re not guilty
The EBU tweeted that neither the title nor the lyrics of the song contained “political speech” and therefore the song did not breach any Eurovision rule. However, in a interview with The Guardian newspaper, Jamala said that 1944 also reminded her of her own family living in Crimea nowadays, claiming that since the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea “the Crimean Tatars are on occupied territory.”
Personally, I think the Ukraine got lucky here, and in hindsight, the EBU may have acted differently. Having said that, Ukraine won fair and square being one of only a handful of songs to elicit an emotional response. You can have your thunder and lightning and big-budget graphics, but a simple £20,000 tree and a tearful woman deservedly won the Contest.
The juries need more influence:
In stripping away the balancing affect of the juries, the EBU has ceded more power to those nations that benefit from vast diaspora and regional voting. Poland got the third highest televote, despite only finishing 25th with the juries. I accept the seven points from the juries was a tad harsh, but it doesn’t seem right that a dated, 1980s power ballad accrued a higher televote than Australia and Sweden to name just two, especially as it propelled them into the top-10 at the cost of the Netherlands. The 7/1 top-10 bet recommended was nice though. This rule change means that Poland could literally defecate on stage and still score a top-10 finish! Now I know Poland got a raw deal in 2014, but surely that can be overcome by an amendment to the juries’ marking criteria to recognise regional or contemporary musical influences?
As demonstrated earlier, this new voting system gave us a different winner than if scored under the 2015 rules. Even more controversial is the fact that Ukraine finished 2nd to Australia in semi-final 2, while failing to win either the jury vote or televote in the final. I’ve already stated Jamala’s victory is within the spirit of the rules and was deserved, but in terms of PR and the wider acceptance of “the result”, how does the EBU reconcile this going forward? Are the EBU reference group considering a change for next year’s contest, or will they wait for a terrible injustice before taking action? Don’t get me wrong, the new scoring system is a triumph for TV viewers, but the influence of diaspora and regional voting skewed this year’s result and will likely affect future contests too. Victory should be earned on merit, rather than as a consequence of diaspora or regional voting strength. I would be in favour of relinking the jury and televote again, but that might affect the way votes are presented during the final. Even so, we still get a split result, so there must be a way of retaining the new system, while ensuring we get the balancing influence of the juries.
With influence comes responsibility:
On the face of it, the only jury controversy this year came from an impromptu Periscope broadcast of Russia’s jury watching and commenting on semi-final 1. When not pouting at the camera, jury member D, Anastasiya Stotskaya, also filmed her score sheet, which showed negative feedback for Moldova and Hungary, and positive for the Netherlands. The microphone also picked up that she would support Armenia for the simple reason that her husband was from the nation. It’s great to see professionalism in action! Anyway, whether broadcast or not, publicising her thoughts prior to the live show was a mindless act of stupidity and in clear breach of the rules. The EBU investigated and removed her from the jury.
Interestingly, the EBU statement mentioned the following:
The independent notary present at the jury gathering
confirmed that the voting was conducted in accordance with the rules.
As the text says above, the notary is independent, or at least that’s what the EBU would have us believe. The notary is actually appointed by the local broadcaster, so that whole independence thing is just a fallacy – five jurors can still sit there and concoct a set of rankings to mirror their broadcaster’s political will, or dance the conga while chanting “we love Armenia” – all under the supervision of a make-believe official.
If the juries are indeed going to act professionally and impartially, maybe the EBU should use streaming technology to monitor their work? The EBU already provides a feed to the 40+ nations for the jury rehearsal, so perhaps local broadcasters should be required to provided a simple webcam feed to EBU HQ for random checks of deliberations. The recorded feed could also be checked if foul play was suspected. It’s not expensive and the element of doubt would ensure a greater level of scrutiny than the broadcaster’s paid lackey.
The EBU often claims that the Contest is overseen by PwC observers, however a confidential source revealed to me that “PwC only look into dodgy dealings *if* the EBU asks them to – they are mostly symbolic.” The source added: “PwC can witness a murder but unless Jon Ola Sand and his generals tell them to investigate…they don’t.” This effectively allows the EBU to keep a lid on controversies until such time as they are picked up by the media.
Another controversy from the east, this time involving the Moldovan Culture Minister, Monica Babuc. In a prank call broadcast live on Russian TV, Babuc was conned into believing that she was in conversation with her Ukrainian counterpart, Evgheni Nischuk, calling on behalf of Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko. During the call, Babuc agreed to fix 12-points for Ukraine, even though she hadn’t listened to 1944. She later added that if it were up to her, she would award Ukraine all 24 points.
This incident, along with those reported in 2013, prove that political interference does take place, which not only skews the result of the Contest, it undermines the essence of fair play. As ever, it’s the eastern nations involved, however some Mediterranean and Nordic countries are also known to prioritise politics and nepotism over music.
Friends with benefits:
Since their recent financial difficulties, both Cyprus and Greece have nurtured a close affiliation with Putin’s Russia. Their juries duly awarded their new ally 12-points, while conveniently ranking Ukraine low. There were obviously nepotism points for Fokas and Kontopoulos too, but again, there’s no smoking gun and last year, Cyprus and Greece’s 12s went to Italy. Nevertheless, an unnamed source confirmed that there was an agreement between the two nations to favour Italy at last year’s final.
This year’s 4th place finisher in Melodifestivalen, Wiktoria Johansson, was meant to be on the Swedish jury, but was replaced after airing her opinions on a Swedish preview show, which was as good call by SVT. Lisa Ajax was drafted in to replace Wiktoria and joined Melfest heartthrob, Anton Ewald, and songwriter, Anderz Wrethov, responsible Aysel & Arash’s 2009 Eurovision hit for Azerbaijan. Wrethov also co-wrote SaRaha’s Kizunguzungu with Arash for this year’s Melfest. Ajax, Ewald and Wrethov are all on the books of Capitol Records, as are the writers of this year’s Azerbaijan song, Miracle. Furthermore, one of Samra Rahimli’s dancers, Zain Odelstål, performed on stage with Lisa Ajax at this year’s Melfest. One of the EBU’s rules governing jury members reads as follows:
No member of a National Jury shall be connected in any way with any of the participating songs entered and/or artists performing in the Eurovision Song Contest in such a way that they cannot vote in complete independence and impartiality.
Lisa Ajax ranked the Azeri song first in both the semi-final and grand final, while Wrethov placed Miracle 3rd in the semi and 6th in the final. As a group, the jury ranked Azerbaijan 3rd in the semi and 2nd in the final. Moreover, the Molly Pettersson-Hammar written song from Malta was ranked 2nd in the semi and 4th in the final. Three cheers for nepotism, hurrah!
Jury Points Trading:
It seems crazy that we’re still talking about jury points trading after everything that happened from 2012-2014. But should we really be surprised, given our source’s comments that PwC are just window dressing?
In the past, our attention has focussed on Azerbaijan, but their ambitions in the Contest have been severely checked since 2013. Don’t worry though, their moment will come shortly! However, a nation that seems to sneak under the radar and get away with quite blatant levels of alleged skulduggery is Malta. This small Mediterranean island enjoyed a long-distance fling with Azerbaijan, both regularly exchanging maximum points with each other until 2013, when Azerbaijan were caught cheating with other small nations. Having learned all the dirty tricks, this Eurovision minnow seemingly bossed their way to top the semi-final jury vote and finished top-4 with the juries in the final. Strangely though, the televote only ranked Ira Losco’s Walk On Water 9th in the semi and 21st in the final.
Now it takes two to tango, but Malta appear to be the main beneficiary in this year’s Contest, which would indicate they were the proposer of these alleged deals. Let’s look that those suspect jury scores:
- Armenia: Every juror ranked Malta 1st and Montenegro 2nd (!) – this was duly reciprocated from those two nations. Continued in the final.
- Austria ranked Malta 1st in the semi and 2nd in the final.
- France ranked Malta 2nd in semi, but 7th in the final. Jury member ‘B’ ranked 1st in semi-final, but 17th in the final.
- Hungary ranked Malta 1st in the semi and 2nd in the final,
- Montenegro ranked Malta 2nd in the semi, but 1st in the final,
- Russia ranked Malta 3rd in the semi and 3rd in the final – this was repaid with Malta ranking Russia 2nd in the semi, but only 7th in the final.
- Netherlands ranked Malta 3rd in the semi, but 21st in the final.
There are plenty of other 3rd and 4th placed rankings from the likes of Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland and Spain that all contrast with the opinions of televoters, though these are slightly less clear.
Other than those instances mentioned above, the final highlighted the following irregularities:
- Bulgaria ranked Malta 4th, Malta returned the favour by ranking Bulgaria 2nd.
- Malta ranked UK first – I was informed about this score 12-hours ahead of the final from an confidential source.
- Serbia ranked Malta 2nd.
As ever, there are a few scores that strongly imply suspicious activity, and just like in 2014, Armenia, Montenegro and a few others are involved. And even though I didn’t report on what was a largely clean Contest in 2015, the relationships between Malta, Montenegro Hungary and Azerbaijan were just as close.
Azerbaijan have a curious place in the Contest nowadays: since 2013 their alleged power-voting and jury rigging activities have decreased, and I’m reliably informed their aim is to qualify and not disgrace themselves in the final. Last year Azerbaijan qualified in 10th place with just 10 points to spare, which I’m sure alarmed the Aliyev household. With the jury vote and televote separated again in Stockholm, it meant power-voting (using sim cards in nations with small televotes) could secure a decent points haul, thus avoiding the humiliation of failing to qualify thanks to a singer who possessed the vocal proficiency of a primary school choir. So where did Azerbaijan allegedly secure some easy points:
- Bosnia & Herzegovina: 2nd on the televote
- Cyprus: Finished 3rd on the televote
- Czech Republic: 2nd on the televote
- Hungary: topped the televote, 4th with the jury
- Malta: 2nd on the televote
- Moldova: topped the televote
These points were depressed once Samra was pitched against stiffer competition in the final. Even so, how were these instances not picked up by the EBU’s voting partner, DIGAME? Their job is to monitor suspicious voting patterns and to cancel votes attributed to power voting. The televotes in all of those nations listed above look rather dubious, so either the EBU’s screening systems were beaten, or the EBU allowed them to stand. Clearly PwC won’t do anything about it, as they have to wait for Executive Supervisor, Jon Ola Sand, to order an investigation. Given Azerbaijan escaped punishment in 2013 following months of panicked statements from the EBU, it’s highly likely that they’ll let it continue given the lack of major press coverage.
The governance remains broken:
Whether it’s political songs, vote trading, power voting or just plain stupidity and unprofessionalism from the juries, this year’s Contest has been shown to be one of the dirtiest in recent memory. The fact that PwC are just there for show, rather than proactively investigating and trying to prevent corruption at source illustrates the EBU’s inability to manage the Contest.
If you want another solid example of unprofessionalism at the Contest, how about this:
On the day of the final, I approached a member of Hungary’s delegation and asked for their jury scores. I had never met this person before, but after a short conversation, I was immediately provided with their top-3 ranking which turned out to be 100% correct. This was in addition to other jury hints from confidential sources.
Despite it greatly aiding my betting strategy, this information should not be freely available to members of the press, which sort of backs up the growing evidence that points are arranged between certain delegations both during the pre-contest tours and at rehearsals.
The EBU has already appeared in Private Eye magazine twice this year, but due to a lack of wider mainstream press coverage, their shambolic governance is allowed to continue. As fans, we are all passionate supporters of the Contest, so my message to the EBU is, get your act together and clean up the Contest!
I’d like to end on a positive and thank Sweden for organising the best and most entertaining Eurovision show I have ever seen. With the help of excellent script writers, Måns and Petra were a breath of fresh air after Vienna’s formulaic, comedy-free show. If only we had last year’s songs! The addition of Justin Timberlake gave the show a slick, international feel and his song is still stuck in my head. Well done Sweden and here’s to a swift return to your wonderful country.