Is Eurovision fair?

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.

11 thoughts on “Is Eurovision fair?

  1. Hi Chris. Just a little something from me: There is a difference between Poland and, lets say, Ukraine. The Polish have had a dislike towards Russians for centuries and it has nothing to do with communism. It is not true that post-communistic countries stick together or that they like Russia (they were occupied by them for a long time). It depends on other aspects. The former Soviet Union countries are still under the influence of Russia and besides their own language, they speak Russian as well, due to many Russians who live there and were “installed” to balance the original nation (just like the Chinese in Tibet). I am Czech and we didn?t vote for Russia just because the guy wasn?t so special at all, but because we do have many Ukrainian immigrants here, we gave some votes to Ukraine (just like last year). I do think televoting is unfair because Scandinavian countries stick together and also former Yugoslavia does the same together with former Soviet Union countries and of course immigrants in Western countries do their share and should I dare to say also people of the same religion…? :-) The whole contest is not about music, it is about politics and selfishness. Countries that have a few neighbours get less votes and those who have many or share the same language get higher score. The point is, next time more countries will vote only for their neighbours and won?t care about the music performance. It is frustrating to see talented people being ignored just because they don?t belong to the proper “group” … Your other point was about the jury votes sometime ago. Maybe you should also consider how many countries were participating back then, I guess that’s why they got the title so many times. …But to be honest with you, judging from all the contestants of this year, I liked the Polish singer the most… ;-) And yes, you?re right, it?s just bloody Eurovision. The vision of Europe………….. :-)

  2. Every bloody year…

    A lot of analysis I’ve read over the years (because it’s voting geekery) points to voting favouring linguistic awareness. It used to be English songs were mostly favoured as there were three English speaking member countries and many spoke it as a second language. Now it’s slavonic languages, especially those with very few differences (former Yugoslav countries speak serbo-croat dialects, etc). Plus Russia has an advantage as many of its neighbours have substantial Russian minority populations, and is also a major centre of Orthodoxy these days.

    Of course certain wins buck the trend?Lordi got every goth, rocker and loon out to vote for the first time ever, for example. But yeah, agreed, it’s just bloody Eurovision and people should stop whinging as much.

  3. What would be fair is to weight votes by population. There’s no good reason why Andorra should have as many votes as Germany, for example. Or perhaps national television audience for Eurovision. Perhaps part of the resentment at the perception that all these places that didn’t even used to be countries winning it is that they are really mostly pretty small. But then, it is only Eurovision; it’s not like it really matters.

  4. I’m with Rob. It doesn’t make any sense why Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (combined population ~6 million) have the same voting power as the UK, France and Germany (combined population ~200 million).

  5. Perhaps you should all look closer to home before condemning so easily. After all when voting in general elections (the real, important kind, that choose the Prime Minister and everything), a few dozen swing voters in the likes of Crawley and Sittingbourne have far more say in the matter than thousands of voters in Bolsover or Buckingham.

  6. Chris, while I disagree that country size weighting should come in (given it’s just a song contest after all), but the differential between MPs is different?each constituency size is reset to rough parity with all others every 10 years, that isn’t the case with Eurovision.

    Yes, swing voters in marginals have more power but that as a result of the analysis of many many iterated series. If there were only two clear winners of Eurovision for a period of time and a few countries switched votes to determine a winner, then your analogy might work better, surely?

    John?each country has the same number of votes as each enters one song and has one state broadcaster contributing money. It’s long enough and horrible enough as it is without more entries.

  7. Mat – you are mostly right, except that while constituency sizes are reset with boundary redraws (for the most part, give or take a few), the demographics of swing seats are not reset, leading them to still be swing seats afterwards. My analogy isn’t perfect (country size in a proportional vote v. margin size in a FPTP vote) but my point was people are willing to tolerate inequality of vote weighting &undue influence in domestic politics far more than in Eurovision (no pop culture figure to my knowledge has ever been given as much coverage complaining about election results as much as Wogan’s annual rants about Eurovision).

    Incidentally the moans about the smaller countries having a larger vote were not an issue when the UK regularly got votes from smaller more Anglophile nations such as Malta, Cyprus, Ireland and the Scandinavian countries, and had we not got six points from San Marino this year we’d have been dead bottom, but that’s just an idle observation…

  8. Almost all of the countries in Eastern Europe will vote for their neigbours. Russia is bordered by many countries on its European border, most of which voted for them.
    Scandanvian counties will vote for their neigbours (Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland) and former Yugoslav countries will give each other the vote, which was why Serbia won last year, the former Warsaw Pact and Soviet countries will vote for Russia, nobody can deny that people are voting their neigbours, the only reason people in the UK watch it anymore is to laugh at Wogans smart arse comments. The show has become a joke now. Yet both the UK and Ireland are techically neigbours and we always give eachother points so i suppose we’re not innocent either but it seems to me its only the Western European countries that are voting fairly.
    The UK is an island, so we dont really have neigbours except for Ireland which is also an island. While we usually have had songs, none of them are bad enough to come in last. Even Bosnia was above us and they were terrible.

  9. @MarkR –

    1) Speak for yourself, I watch Euroviz despite Wogan’s increasingly tedious whining about political voting, not for it.

    2) Yes, our song was REALLY bad. Unlike Bosnia Herzogovina, who I thought was one of the best all evening.

    on general note, though:

    3) Top tip, Song For Europe voters: the rest of Europe does not watch the UK’s X Factor series. Choosing the rubbish Errol Brown impersonator just because you recognise him from that show is therefore a bit blimmin’ pointless.

    Yes, there is an element where Scandinavians are more likely to vote for Scandinavian pop music, both because they like it, and due to the many Norwegians that live in Sweden and so on. But until we stop entering absolute rubbish we won’t stop coming dead last.

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