Eurovision bosses caught out by 2024’s chaotic contest

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Eurovision organisers were “unprepared for the drama” of this year’s competition but could face criticism of censorship if they try to crackdown on contestants’ use of the stage to make political statements next year, experts have said.

From Israel’s participation and the lyrics of its original entry – initially entitled October Rain in reference to the 7 October attack by Hamas – to the criticism of Swedish pop singer Eric Saade wearing a keffiyeh, a traditional Middle Eastern scarf which has been used as a symbol of pro-Palestinian support, during his semi-final guest performance, there have been a series of political acts.

Outside the competition, multiple Eurovision watch parties in the UK, including the biggest in London, were cancelled amid widespread protests over the Israel-Gaza conflict.

Demonstrators staged protests in Malmo over Israel’s participation in the Eurovision Song Contest, which held its grand final in the Swedish city on Saturday (Photo: Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)

In Malmö, Sweden, where the grand final was held, demonstrators marched against Israel’s participation in the competition.

Viewing figures also plummeted amid calls to boycott the contest. An average of 7.64 million people, peaking at 8.46 million, watched the final on the BBC, according to official figures released by the agency Digital i.

The 68th edition of the Eurovision Song Contest, which prides itself on being “a non-political event music event”, has been at the centre of several high-profile controversies.

But one Eurovision expert told i the contest’s organisers, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

James Rowe, Eurovision expert and presenter of The Euro Trip podcast, said a consensus among the EBU members two years ago led to Russia’s removal from the competition but there was no consensus on removing Israel this year so the EBU would not have taken the decision.

“They were almost stuck between a rock and a hard place in a way,” he said. “With them not removing Israel, it almost seemed like they were making a political decision one way or another.”

Mr Rowe said that he thinks that despite preparations, the problem this year is that “there is much more of a fractured debate about what Israel as a country, from a political point of view, is doing”.

Stars are also becoming more vocal in the contest.

Olly Alexander of United Kingdom who performed the song Dizzy, center, reacts as he gets zero points in the public vote during the Grand Final of the Eurovision Song Contest in Malmo, Sweden, Saturday, May 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
UK entry Olly Alexander received zero points in the public vote during Saturday’s final (Photo: Martin Meissner/AP)

The UK’s Olly Alexander – who received the dreaded “nul points” in the public vote in Saturday’s final – and other Eurovision artists released a joint statement in March backing “an immediate and lasting ceasefire” in Gaza.

“We’ve seen a lot of [the performers] this year have been pushing the limits, pushing the boundaries to see how much of a statement they can make,” Mr Rowe said.

He added that while he expects there will be further discussions at the EBU about how this can be controlled, organisers would be conscious of “making it look like censorship” as “that’s probably the last thing that the EBU would want”.

“If the EBU wants to maintain their statement of Eurovision not being a political event, then they have to ensure that artists and stars who are at the contest aren’t using the competition as a platform to stand up for what they believe in or use it to push an agenda. So I think it’s a really tricky balance that the EBU have to consider.”

“I think the EBU will possibly struggle to make any changes. Without any consensus from the broadcasters,” Mr Rowe added.

Paul Johnson, commentator and expert known as Dr Eurovision, told i the organisers’ lack of consistency in handling controversy is why they have run into difficulty.

“They’ve allowed songs which are political to compete but banned others. Finland’s entry in 2013 was about equal marriage but other songs like the Georgian entry in 2009 was banned,” he said.

Mr Johnson added that they were not prepared for the drama with the Netherlands, whose entrant Joost Klein was placed under investigation due to an “incident”, or the scale of which the debate over Israel would impact festivities. He said: “The organisers are well prepared for these things and they try their best to be fair. However some things are out of their hands. I don’t think they were prepared for the drama with the Netherlands or the extent to which Israel’s presence would dominate.

“Politics comes into world events whether it be the Olympic Games in Beijing or the World Cup in Qatar. It’s an incredible event and should be joyous, it’s a shame that it feels tinged by politics when it should be about putting differences aside, even if for just one night of the year.”

Mr Johnson suggested there was little organisers could do to prevent contestants from making political statements on the Eurovision stage.

He said: “They could potentially ask acts to sign a contract [to say they won’t engage in politics] – but there’s a dilemma in terms of freedom of expression.”

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