Archive for May, 2008

Is Eurovision fair?

25 May 2008

Once again the UK does badly at Eurovision. Once again it’s all blamed on politics by the likes of Wogan. The usual suspects win they say, it’s always the eastern Europeans voting for each other. But hang on, this was Russia’s first title. And if it’s the Eastern bloc conspiring, then why did Poland come joint-last as well? And has Eurovision ever been about the quality of the song rather than politics?

The state of Eurovision’s “political” voting is blamed on two things – the accession of eastern bloc countries (particularly the former members of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia), and the introduction of televoting rather than jury voting. The former happened gradually over the course of the 1990s, and the latter was introduced in 1998. That’s a good place to start looking at, and the winners’ list from then on reads as follows:

1998 – Israel
1999 – Sweden
2000 – Denmark
2001 – Estonia
2002 – Latvia
2003 – Turkey
2004 – Ukraine
2005 – Greece
2006 – Finland
2007 – Serbia
2008 – Russia

In the eleven years since, eleven different countries have won it. The finger is all too easily pointed at Eastern Europe and the breakup of its states in the 1990s. Four of the eleven are former members of the Soviet Union (36%), which is admittedly more than the proportion of countries contesting (Of the 43 participants in this year’s contest, ten (23%) were ex-Soviet republics). But two of those (Estonia, Latvia) are not Slavic but Baltic countries, and no other ex-Warsaw pact country gets a nod in; the only other Slavic country that has won it is Serbia. There are also three Scandinavian winners, while the remaining three (Greece, Turkey, Israel) are all Mediterranean, but each enjoys a highly distinct cultural and ethnic definition of its own.

I am aware that ethnic and cultural categories are never universally agreed-upon and this can only ever be a broad-brushed summary of cultural similarities, so if you think any of the above is wrong then apologies, but I’ve tried to keep it as loose an inoffensive as possible.

The only big loser in this, then, is Western Europe. But is that really such a bad thing? For comparison, here is the list of the ten winners in the years immediately preceding full televoting, when juries were used instead:

1988 – Switzerland
1989 – Yugoslavia
1990 – Italy
1991 – Sweden
1992 – Ireland
1993 – Ireland
1994 – Ireland
1995 – Norway
1996 – Ireland
1997 – United Kingdom

From a Western European perspective, looks like we did pretty well – you could say up to seven titles were from West (if you include Italy & Switzerland as such) and only one from a country in the eastern half of the continent. From everyone else’s point of view, it was no doubt incredibly unfair and a sure sign of politics meaning the same ones voted every time. But then that’s not surprising; a jury selected by the state broadcaster is far easier to nobble; it’s a much harder task to organise an entire nation of televoters into tactically voting than some people in a room. Conceptually televoting is fairer and the proof is in the pudding: the voters of Europe have voted for unique winners every year, taking in a variety of cultures and musical styles – from a bemasked gods of Finnish black metal to a transsexual Israeli.

What’s happening at Eurovision is not some sinister eastern European plot but ultimately a correction. In the 42 years before televoting and opening up to the people to choose, the top four winners were Ireland, the UK, France and (bizarrely) Luxembourg, with 22 (i.e. more than half) the titles. Some form of correction is long overdue and rhat’s what we’re witnessing now.

This is not to deny that some countries are more likely to vote for others; of course it does. Ethnic diaspora in one country will always vote for the mother country more (e.g. with the Turks in Germany, or indeed the Irish in the UK) and songs that are from a culture similar to your own are more likely to have resonance. But overall there is little to suggest that the same countries win Eurovision again and again, and it’s blatantly clear that the system was far more predictable than it used to be. The rancourous cry of the “usual suspects” is little more than code for “people who aren’t us”, ignorant of the actual facts and variety of performances. Having been the one of the biggest beneficiaries of an unfair system for decades we’re now turning on its successor when the results don’t suit us. It’s childish and ultimately makes us look little better than sore losers.

Alternatively, if you don’t like this argument, there is another one to consider: It’s just bloody Eurovision. It’s a bit of fun, it gives smaller countries the limelight for one night and it’s always been a festival of stupid pop, questionable taste in clothes and taking the mickey. Get over it.

Update: Good takes on the same subject from Duncan and Jamie.


BBC Sound Index, free content & copyright

20 May 2008

The BBC’s Sound Index project is a very interesting (and according to my friend in the technology unit, fairly quietly-kept secret) site. It pulls data from a variety of sites including Last.fm, iTunes and MySpace (with permission) and works out who the hottest artists right now are, with the ability to recommend you stuff based on your tastes. Although the odd recommendation for me is a bit iffy (most notably Lily Allen) the search is impressive and is clearly pulling in some heavy data crunching.

While the BBC have gone to great lengths to secure permission to use album art and other services’ data, it’s a pity then, about the mistaken attitude to copyright of free (as in speech) content on the site. For example, Coldplay, the artist summary is basically a clean copy of the introduction to the corresponding Wikipedia entry. While Wikipedia is credited at the very bottom, this isn’t enough; Wikipedia’s licence is like the Creative Commons sharealike clauses – copies and derivative works must carry the same terms & conditions to prevent people wholly privatising the content and others can share them as well.

Technically the BBC Sound Index is breaching the terms of Wikipedia’s copyright – I’m sure out of ignorance rather than deliberate malice, I must stress. However, given how other arms of the BBC wish t enforce its own copyright on other people, their digital strategy people really need to read up on how they can use free content before using it in projects as big (and potentially awesome) as this.

By the way, I have sent them an edifying email outlining the copyright breach as it stands, I’ll keep you up to date about what happens.


Dear Ken

3 May 2008

Dear Ken,

I’m fucking proud you were the last politician of the Thatcher era to survive into our own

I’m fucking proud you beat Mandelson to the NEC elections in 1997

I’m fucking proud you’re the only Labour politician to feature on a Blur track

I’m fucking proud you stood up to the a rigged mayoral candidate selection process in 2000 and then won

I’m fucking proud at how gallant you were in victory and your kind words for Frank Dobson, the man with the most thankless task in London that year

I’m fucking proud you pushed through the congestion charge for London and it actually fucking worked on the day it started

I’m fucking proud you got back into the Labour party, got Blair to grovel, and fought to a second term as London’s mayor

I’m fucking proud of the humanitarian and open-minded spirit you envisaged the 2012 London Olympics being

I’m really fucking proud of the solemn, defiant and above all non-judgemental speech you made after the July 7th bombings, the day after we won the Games, far better than a thousand words from Blair or anyone else

I’m fucking proud that despite a limited brief, under your watch you’ve got improvements on the Tube, miles more buses at affordable prices, Crossrail and the London Overground, and Trafalgar Square as a clean & amenable civic plaza. Not to mention the encouragement of art & music to London’s streets

I’m not fucking proud that you got chummy with gay-hating fuckwit Yusuf al-Qaradawi

I’m not fucking proud you got yourself in that stupid row with Oliver Finegold when a simple apology and admitting you made an error would have solved it in no time at all

I’m not fucking proud you and Ian Blair are such good mates, either

I’m totally fucking proud that tonight, despite how New Labour fell to third place and 24% of the national vote, you got a bigger percentage of the first ballot vote than you did in 2004

You had your flaws, and a multiplicity of enemies, and you could have done better in acknowledging & confronting both. But your bloody-mindedness worked for you as well when in office, and over the eight years, you did a good job overall. It’s why I voted for you. And yet you still lost. But as upset as I am at the fuckwit they got to replace you, I’m still fucking proud of the job you did. And so are many of us in London.

Don’t let defeat deter you – do stick around, and please find a job where you do what you do best – be competently effective doing important shit and annoying your opponents who obsess over the inconsequential. London will be all the poorer if you don’t.