The necessity and complexity of Eurovision jury reforms

The Eurovision Song Contest has been brought into disrepute following the scandalous news that the results from six professional juries were disqualified due to irregularities in their voting patterns during the second Semi-Final last week. This once again raises natural questions about how juries are assembled, adjudicated and ultimately whether they’re fit for purpose. 

The inclusion of juries at the contest is contentious. Some people like the balance they bring to the show while others don’t like the imbalance of power five people from each participating country have on the overall result. But the power that certain individuals involved in the juries from Azerbaijan, Georgia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania and San Marino tried to exploit has taken the conversation of the credibility of juries in Eurovision to a louder volume. 

Irregular voting patterns

The EBU was first notified of irregularities in the voting patterns of the aforementioned national juries by its independent pan-European voting partner Digame after the second dress rehearsal – often known as the jury show – of the second Semi-Final. 

As a result of this suspected attempt to manipulate voting, substitute aggregate jury results for all six countries were calculated based on the results of other countries with similar voting records at the contest in recent years. This was overseen and approved by the contest’s independent voting monitor PwC. 

Eurovision Executive Supervisor Martin Österdahl announcing the aggregate jury results from Azerbaijan during the Grand Final

Despite İTV, GPB, RTCG and TVR – the broadcasters from Azerbaijan, Georgia, Montenegro and Romania – seeking clarification about their juries’ votes being disqualified, it would be remiss to think the EBU would judge voting irregularities incorrectly considering the experience and natural impartiality it, Digame and PwC have in the process. 

The exact details of the irregularities are unknown but similarities between the individual jurors’ rankings of certain countries could be a fair assumption. 

That being said, other examples of similarities between individual jurors’ rankings isn’t something the EBU actively controls or cracks down on. Since the EBU started releasing detailed jury votes in 2014, every single Armenian and Azeri juror – bar one Armenian in 2016 – has ranked each other’s entry in last place. The reasons for this are well-publicised but it’s seemingly just accepted. If the irregularities this year are deemed to have been bulk similarities, it would beg the question where does the EBU draw the line? 

However, Belgian broadcaster VRT reported on Sunday that the six juries in question had agreed in advance to vote for each other. If this turns out to be true it would be the most blatant, brazen and scandalous breach of the rules of the Eurovision Song Contest in recent memory. 

Change is needed

The appetite for changing the way juries are assembled, ratified, adjudicated and ultimately how they vote is high but it’s a question of which difficult route the EBU will take. Either do nothing and face the inevitability of continuing questions about the details of this year’s voting irregularities and why nothing changed as a result, or go through a difficult period of self-reflection and find a solution for the problem. Neither is an easy task for the EBU. 

Finding a perfect solution to incorporating juries in the formation of Eurovision results is a thankless task and it’s impossible to please everybody. Alternatives to the current assembling and ratification of juries are available but the feasibility of each of them are limited. 

Increasing the size of juries has long been suggested by fans of the contest. On the face of it this balances out the power ratio between the juries and televoters but in reality it would be impractical. The broadcaster RTV in San Marino would find it difficult to find more than five music industry professionals to fill its jury in a country of only 34,000 people. Further, bigger juries gives people looking to bribe jurors more opportunities to do so. 

Dictating that juries must judge the performances blind without knowing which country is which is too a nice idea but again difficult in practice. Signs of national identity are aplenty in some performances with languages, accents, imagery and outfits all scuppering any suggested idea that jurors would not be able to ascertain which country is which. 

The most recent tightening of jury rules was in 2014 when the EBU began announcing the names of jurors before the contest and publishing their individual rankings in detail. This shows that the EBU has been willing to reform juries so it allows confidence to grow that it would not be averse to making further reforms clamp down on any possible future voting manipulations. 

Punish rule breaches

The EBU is not to blame for alleged vote rigging or irregularities in voting patterns but it does, along with Digame and PwC, owe a duty to the integrity of Eurovision to uphold transparency and stop any manipulation or results. At the same time as holding itself accountable, the EBU must simply punish any broadcaster that is responsible for the organisation if its own national jury and find a way of punishing jurors committing breaches too. 

Rule 2.3.2 (ii) of the rules of the Eurovision Song Contest says that jurors “shall be free from bias, external influence or pressure”. If what VRT reported is true then it would be a clear breach of the rules. 

Under measures implemented by the EBU, a breach of any of the rules may be punished with one of three sanctions: a formal warning, a financial penalty or a non-descript sanction. The most severe sanction is exclusion from the contest for a maximum of three consecutive years. It remains to be seen what, if any, sanction the six broadcasters will be hit with but if the EBU chooses not to reform how juries are made up, a sanction would surely be needed to disparage jurors from committing such serious breaches of Eurovision rules in the future. 

If there had simply been one breach of the rules at this year’s edition of the contest then the EBU might have found it easy to explain that it was a one off, but the fact six juries were disqualified shows that – in their current form – Eurovision juries are not fit for purpose and need to be changed before they do even more harm than good.

The last thing Eurovision needs is the credibility of juries to become so consistently inconsistent that controversy starts to overshadow the hard work that the EBU and contest organisers have done together to grow the brand of the contest over the last few years.

Featured image credit – EBU

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