Why the Eurovision bloc voting theory is bogus

How Terry Wogan sees Europe
How Terry Wogan sees Europe

So, yet another Eurovision Song Contest, and get another round of chest-beating and sour grapes from people who think that the reason the UK came last was because of a Europe-wide conspiracy against us and in favour of any of those commies to the east. Every year the protests seem to get louder, and every year they annoy me even more.

Apparently it was inevitable that Russia were always going to benefit from “political” voting. So inevitable that I didn’t see anyone predicting it. Terry Wogan himself didn’t, except until Russia started racking up the points at which point it had become an obvious conspiracy.

The thing is, this is nonsense. As Chris Applegate has pointed out, this is the first time Russia has ever won the Eurovision Song Contest. So much for the inevitability of Russia’s success.

While so many wise-guys are quick to say after the event how predictable the result of the ESC was, I’ve yet to see so many people successfully predict who will win beforehand. Derek Gatherer predicts who will win, but only after the semi-finals have taken place. This is a bit like buying a lottery ticket once you know what the first five balls are. Even then, his prediction — Ukraine — was wrong (although close).

There were three specific countries that Terry Wogan said twice during the broadcast would benefit from political voting across Europe. He said this for each of the three countries during their turn, and he said it again during the recap while the phone numbers are displayed on the screen. (Check it on BBC iPlayer.)

The three countries that, according to Terry Wogan, were inevitably going to benefit from political voting? Romania, Albania and Poland. These countries finished 20th, 17th and 24th respectively — out of 25 countries in the final. If there was a conspiracy, whoever was behind it cocked it up big time.

Of course, Terry Wogan could have seen that his theory was bogus if he simply looked at the results of the semi-final (he did do that, didn’t he?). He would have seen that Poland only got through because it was chosen by the jury and did not finish among the top seven chosen by the televote. Albania also just scraped in, having come 7th in the televote.

The fact that Poland came joint-last in the final along with the UK shows just how hollow the ‘bloc votes’ theory is. It is certainly not as simple as “countries in the east are bound to benefit”. Poland’s paltry score of 14 was made up of points from just two countries — Ireland and the UK. The last time I checked, neither of these countries were in eastern Europe.

Furthermore, the past fourteen Eurovision Song Contests have been won by fourteen different countries. This is completely unprecedented in the history of the ESC (the previous longest run being eight). Incidentally, only 7 of those countries can be credibly described as “eastern European”.

It hardly needs to be pointed out that the countries that make up the British Isles have been the most successful in the ESC’s history, Ireland and the UK having won twelve contests between them, including an incredible run of five wins in six years in the mid-1990s. The UK has also finished second 15 times, more than any other country.

Far from becoming predictable, the Eurovision Song Contest is more open than it has ever been. You can put this almost entirely down to the introduction of televoting in 1998. As Chris Applegate says, it is far easier to rig Eurovision when it is just a few jury members rather than the entire population of the EBU countries that have to be manipulated.

All of this is not to say that there is not political (or cultural, or whatever) voting going on. Incidentally, the cultural-similarity argument is quite strong, though not watertight. Even correcting for linguistic and cultural similarities, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania still engage in bloc voting.

Even so, this is a very small number of countries. As Ewan Spence points out most “blocs” consist of 5 or 6 countries.

In fact, Derek Gatherer’s Venn diagram shows that “blocs” are actually as small as two countries, or four at a push. Of course, the UK and Ireland have formed their own little bloc, which is what makes little Britishers’ protests all the more pathetically hypocritical.

As such, the fact that Russia won cannot credibly be blamed on bloc voting. In order to win the ESC, any country has to appeal beyond their bloc and gain votes from across Europe. For this reason, the idea of entering different songs for England, Scotland, etc. (or even full-on independence — any excuse to bring that up, eh? 😉 ) so that the UK could engage in its own bloc voting would fail.

The ESC Today website has analysed the votes of “western” and “eastern” European countries separately. What they show is that even in the western-only table, Russia came fifth. That’s not a win, but it is only 13 points behind the western winner, Greece. Also of note in the western-only table is the fact that Germany finished bottom and the UK also did very badly. Meanwhile, in the eastern-only table, Poland finish joint bottom with nul points.

Clearly, blaming the iron curtain as Terry Wogan does (hopefully in jest) is wide of the mark. Even locking the eastern Europeans out of the voting, eastern Europeans would still pick up plenty of points.

The thing about the “bloc votes” theory is that it’s just the sort of thing that becomes true if you just say it often enough. Ignorance has a lot to do with it.

Recently I had the misfortune to catch an episode of The Paul O’Grady Show where Terry Wogan was a guest talking about the ESC. He mentioned in passing that Azerbaijan were participating for the first time — to hoots of laughter from the audience. “Azer-ban-jan?!”, yelped O’Grady. “I’ve never even heard of Azer-ban-jan! Is it even in Europe?” I hope O’Grady was joking (though there’s every chance he wasn’t), but I just know that some of the laughing audience members were thinking exactly that.

I think for a lot of people, the Eurovision Song Contest is perhaps the only time of the year they discover a Europe beyond, say, the EU-12 or the iron curtain or Mediterranean holiday resorts. In a contest of 41 countries, and with many well-known western European countries (Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg) declining to participate, the chances are high that the winning country will be one that many people couldn’t point to on a map. It might be as if “eastern Europe” is just one big country for these people.

If a country people can’t point to on a map (or those dirty commies in Russia) wins the ESC rather than a country a stone’s throw away from the UK, people jump to conclusions and start concocting the conspiracy theories. So if Russia wins, it’s political voting because eastern Europeans don’t want Russia to shut down the gas pipe. If Serbia wins, it’s the Balkan bloc voting that did it. If Finland wins, it’s the Scandinavian bloc vote. And so on.

Well here is a radical idea. Perhaps the countries that win the Eurovision Song Contest do so because they write songs that appeal to a wide variety of European countries and performed well on the night.

The real reason the UK tends to do so poorly in the ESC these days is that its entries are so mediocre. The UK seems to alternate between entering a song that is overtly camp and too knowing and / or stupid to be taken seriously (Scooch, Jemini, Daz Sampson) and insipid, bland, instantly forgettable dross (Javine, James Fox, Andy Abraham). It’s no accident that the last time the UK won the ESC back in 1997, it was with a song that was actually quite good (and incidentally holds the record for the largest winning margin in the ESC) and performed by a well known band and not some reality TV reject?

I mean, really, what can the UK expect if it enters someone like Andy Abraham? The man lost at The X Factor for crying out loud. What made anyone think he would win Eurovision?! As for the performance, it was nothing to write home about was it? Terry Wogan said he liked it, but I seem to remember he said the same about Jemini’s notoriously bad performance.

Blaming the UK’s loss on bloc voting when there are more sensible explanations just reflects badly on Wogan and all the others who bring up this red herring. It comes across as sour grapes.

I suppose the question is, does the UK really want to win Eurovision? The ESC is seen as trashy kitsch by most in the UK. This helps explain why most of the UK’s entrants these days are desperate reality television losers. Some countries may see the ESC as a joke, but others are clearly passionate to win the contest. Russia in particular tends to enter more famous artists. Their performer this year, Dima Bilan, is one of the country’s biggest pop stars who is on the verge of making a name for himself internationally.

It seems to me as though there are many countries who want to win the Eurovision Song Contest much more than the UK wants to. So why not let them win rather than throwing your hands up and shouting “conspiracy”?

As for Terry Wogan’s hints that he may quit Eurovision, I do hope he calls it a day. I can’t stand his commentary. The man is not a fraction as funny as he thinks he is. He mistakes rudeness for wit. He has been past it for as long as I can remember. If he quits, I hope Paddy O’Connell get the job. He has always done a fantastic job at commentating during the semi-final. He is witty but not cynical, and obviously still likes the ESC, unlike Wogan.

For what it’s worth, my favourite song was France’s — ‘Divine’ by Sébastien Tellier. I think France should just be given bonus points for entering a song containing non-French lyrics for a change!

28 comments

  1. You and Chris demolish the bloc voting theory pretty convincingly. And yet…

    “insipid, bland, instantly forgettable dross (Javine, James Fox, Andy Abraham).”

    ….is also an excellent description of this year’s Russian entry.

  2. “also an excellent description of this year’s Russian entry”

    And that skater was about as camp as the stuff the UK put up. They should stop worrying about what the new Indianan Jones film says about the mother country, when this is what they’re giving to the word.

    “does the UK really want to win Eurovision?”

    No, we don’t want to have to cough up the vast amount to put on this dross, should pull out fully and withdraw all funding.

  3. Have to say, I don’t really see anything that camp in the ice skater. It’s certainly not nearly as camp as Scooch (complete with the line, “Would you like something to suck on, sir?”).

    I don’t think the Russian entry is a masterpiece, but it’s not really a bad song. The performance was certainly passionate and the guy is a bona fide pop star. That’s a lot more than can be said about Andy Abraham, a talent show reject who just stood there in a ridiculous glittery jacket singing a bland funk / soul song that could easily have been ripped from a keyboard demo.

  4. “Poland’s paltry score of 14 was made up of points from just two countries — Ireland and the UK. The last time I checked, neither of these countries were in eastern Europe.”

    And just possibly was this result because of a large number of Polish immigrants to these two countries voting for their home country?

    The Russian winner apparently has a string of number one hits in Eastern Europe so it’s not surprising he got a lot of votes.
    Andy Abraham?…… nonentity.

  5. The GB song was probably the worst entry we’ve ever had. But my initial reaction when he won the right to represent GB, was that I felt the very real voting problems would be brushed under the carpet, by those more ignorant ‘analysts’ who would take up the issue only this time round (not the previous 5 years). Natural cynics, which often leads to ignorance of the matter, will always try to read the minds of those they dislike anyway (Terry Wogan). It’s fascinating to see a blogger who has failed to grasp the facts, regardless of how poor our entrant was. You focussed on mental scandal, rather than the voting patterns. You should have been independent-minded over this, but began your investigation with an assumptive mind. Probably where you went wrong. Only kids care if we win, adults care about corruptive practices, etc. The article makes the blogger look a bit foolish and ignorant. Your incorrect use of your ‘sour grapes’ assumptions indicates you greet all justified complaints as ‘something to be scoffed at’. A budding fascist eh? I bet you would have been the last to admit the world was round, not flat, if you were around a few hundred years ago. The first part of truth, is always ridicule….

  6. Er, Bert I don’t understand your point. I have analysed voting patterns quite comprehensively, right down to considering the differences between western and eastern European voting and citing analysis of voting blocs by academics.

  7. I felt exactly the same. We were terrible and had such a forgettable song, and can’t people who shared much of the same history like the same music? Plus we’ve never really “got” Eurovision for the past 10 years (I mean, didn’t Jordan have an entry one year FFS?). I’d like to have seen Jusin Hawkins, who had come off the phenomenal European wide hysteria from The Darkness, had a shot one year instead of bland songs (am I to believe the year that Lordi won it, even though – in my opinion – Daz Sampson was probably the best song of the bad bunch from Jemini).

    Interestingly, Wogan said in an interview “I think it’d be better if the non-Finalists didn’t vote”. Then we’d have got 0 points, as San Marino and Ireland didn’t appear in the final!

  8. Your analysis was over the past five years? Jeez and you didn’t forecast who would vote for who, including where the irish ‘if you can’t beat ’em join ’em’ vote went? Noticed how you didn’t analyse that one correctly either. Why did a character assasination (of Wogan / British people) have to be included in your analysis. You assume people’s minds, wrongly this time!! That is nothing short of disgraceful. Why could you not simply analyse the voting patterns? Why did you have to wear a different agenda on your sleeve, when writing? You lose your point, because the sour grapes are actually coming from you. Suddenly now you claim to have consulted stats etc, yet none of that is evident in the article! Include it if you want to be believed to be anything other than assumptive. Stick to clear thought and the intelligent will listen. No one can narrow it down to Eastern bloc voting, so why have the news agencies done so? If you are well-travelled, you know Germany will vote for Turkey, etc evry year. It seems those ignorant of foreign nations have simplified this to an Eastern Europe issue. Because simple people like simple issues. There is a voting pattern. That’s a fact. But it’s been generalised again so the issue is lost: a bit like missing the words ‘developing-world’ from the word immigration, when debating that. Your issue is therefore with news agencies, not the viewers who noticed the patterns (the same viewers who live in perhaps the fairest nation on earth- created from those same people’s mindsets).

    Do you follow now?

  9. In fact, the only biased things on here are the anti-Terry Wogan cartoon and the original tabloid-style headline. Oooh the irony!

    Wogan annoys me too, but I don’t dismiss his factual observation because I don’t like him. Independent thinking, objective analysis, whatever you call it…please practice it yourself!! SELF-analysis would be a good by-product of this blog.

  10. Bert,

    My analysis was not over the last five years. It was over the entire history of the ESC. I pointed out that since televoting began there has been a different winner every single year, contributing to the longest run of unique winning counties in the contest’s history. This makes the ESC more open than it has ever been.

    I didn’t forecast who would vote for who because that was not what I set out to do. In fact, I was setting out to show that you cannot predict exactly who will vote for who!

    I said — as you will know if you read my post — that voting blocs do exist, but that they are a maximum size of four countries. One of these blocs is indeed Germany–Turkey, but there was no need for me to point that out because, as you yourself said, everyone knows that already.

    I have consulted statistics, and linked to them where appropriate. As I said, I have looked at the run of unique winners since televoting began and compared that with the runs of unique winners in the contest’s history. I also consulted Derek Gatherer’s analysis (which has since been taken down, but the BBC also linked to it so I was not imagining things).

    Your point that “No one can narrow it down to Eastern bloc voting” was exactly the point I was making for the whole of my post. So I’m not exactly sure what your point is in this respect.

    If political voting is a big problem, would you like to predict for me the winner of the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest?

  11. Do people actually care who wins? I thought the point was to watch Wogan get pissed and make fun of everyone and everything nearby. It’s not like any of the songs have any musical merit.

  12. That’s probably the nub of the issue Calum. I think people in the UK really do not care who wins. But it looks to me as though a lot of people in other EBU countries do. Which is part of the reason why I get perplexed when Brits complain about it when the UK finishes near the bottom. I mean, you will finish near the bottom if you only enter a talent show reject…

  13. “I don’t really see anything that camp in the ice skater”

    Really, a bloke looking like Randy Quaid in Kingpin mooning round on skates. Row of tents.

  14. Doctorvee, I agree with you on every single point. So refreshing to se somebody finally talking sense. I’m from Slovakia, the very centre of Europe, who didn’t take part in Eurovision.

    When I first watched this show in UK, I was so shocked by this country’s attitude that it took me 6 moths to get over it. I’ve hated Terry Wogan ever since, even though the ESC is the only program I know him from. He’s basically a very old man still living in times of 20 years ago. He’s a rude obnoxious bigot who can’t see past his own nose. He insults countries that are smaller, less important and poorer than UK, laughs at people’s accents and is desperately unfunny. Everytime after watching him on ESC I wonder why people complain about over-the-top political correctness–there’s still lack of it! I don’t know how BBC allow a man with such ignorant views on their screens.

    On Making Your Mind Up after informing us that there’ll be 43 countries in the contest, he laughed: “There’s no 43 countires in Europe!” Stupid idiot!!! And the audience thought it was funny, which is even more tragic. Just as well I didn’t see the Paul O’Grady show you mentioned or I would have thrown something on my telly.

    Also interesting how, come ESC, everybody suddenly develops their Geography skills.

    As I said, I’m from Slovakia. My favourite entries were Greece, Spain and Armenia. I suggest you take a map and explain to me how political everything is.

    Sour grapes? As Churchill the dog says – O yes!

  15. Thanks for an enormously interesting analysis, DrV.

    Re: France, it was my favourite based on the studio-recorded videos on the Eurovision website, but terrible mixing and no stage presence killed it on the night for me; I wanted Norway to win, or maybe Bosnia-Herzegovina

    Re: Campness, it’s not the World Figure Skating Champ’s fault that his long hair makes him look a bit like Karl from Die Hard, really.

    Re: Our Entry, it was just TERRIBLE. I much preferred Scooch, it was so bad.

    Re: Block Voting, as you say, most countries can blag a vote from someone, and no-one is guaranteed a big vote from more than about three, so it’s just not enough.

  16. i did watch it this year . i did think it was biased. i will not be watching it in the future . i just hope it banned . as i dont like any think that biased so get rid of it. dont waste any more money on it and get it out of our systems.

  17. Iceland should have won it.

    Anyway, another thing overlooked by Wogan is that some countries take Eurovish a lot more seriously than we do. We’re happy to enter any old crap (sorry Andy old bean, but you weren’t much cop) while the Russian’s put in their top artists. Remember, they had taTu singing for the rodina one year. That would have been like us having All Saints doing the biz at the height of their fame.

    So how about entering someone decent for a change?

  18. I have to agree with some of the comments here. After reading about the entrants for the ESC from other countries. It seems that famous groups are entered and this is the key to obtaining better results as singers are well known in more than one country.

    However, here in the UK we keep entering singers who are just “starting out”. The UK needs to utilise famous singers we have here and who are also known internationally, then may be, we will begin to see a change. Nothing is going to improve for us if we keep turning the same old wheel.

  19. I think the main reason the UK tends to do badly is because the sort of people in the UK who vote for its entry have very different musical tastes (more middle-of-the-road pop, resembling America’s musical taste in some ways) to our European counterparts. As a result, the UK entry tends to be UK-orientated, which probably isn’t the best strategy for a European competition where the UK is very much has the minority of power.

    The other European countries, by and large, have musical tastes that are closer to one another’s. This is particularly true for the Eastern bloc (possibly why the rigged voting theory came about in the first place), but the facts that most of the other European nations have multiple neighbours connected by land and have invaded each other a fair number of times mean they all tend to agree more on cultural things. Famous artists are effectively a mini-invasion, because other countries know and presumably like that tune prior to the competition.

    Obviously, proximity of musical tastes does not prevent a sprinking of disastrous entries (I know the UK have had a few rubbish songs, but it doesn’t have a monopoly on them…) but it surely must help. If you like a song, you’re more likely to vote for it!

    Maybe that’s why so many people in the UK don’t care about who wins Eurovision – because they’re not terribly keen on either the UK entry or the alternatives offered for voting.

  20. This was a great article and I found myself agreeing with almost all of the points, especially those regarding the ignorance in the UK. I also would have buried my face in my hands and emigrated to Norway or something if I saw Paul O’Grady working the audience up into hysteria over the name “Azerbaijan” which he can’t even repeat properly.

    The only thing I will have to disagree with you with is the quality of the UK’s entry in 2008. Andy Abraham was not an X Factor loser or reject. Consider how enormous The X Factor competition is (putting aside the hype and the overuse of apocolyptic music,) and how much it means to the contestants who sing live every Saturday night. The show doubtlessly attracts and evetually produces true talent, regardless of success.

    Andy Abraham was infact a close runner-up in that show and when I first found out he was competing in the UK’s selection I was behind him before I even heard the song, because I know he has a fantastic voice, a wonderful personality, and wanted to represent the UK in his best interest, and I knew we would be in safe hands with him. I cannot comprehend the minds of those people who believe Michelle Gayle who brought back her swimming costume from her trip to Honolulu and decided it’d be a laugh to lay an egg live on prime time British television would have actually got us a significantly better result than Andy did. I would have sent The Revelations if not Andy.

    As for the song, well it was a bit dull and old fashioned, but I found it irresistably catchy nonetheless, and Andy clearly gave it 110% on the night and for that reason alone I am happy with our entry this year, even if I know we can still do better.

    But putting that aside, I tip my hat to you because you are exactly right about the bloc voting theories. There are clearly some aspects of the voting that never seem to go away. (Cyprus’ 12 going to Greece) and don’t know how best to explain those but really this is an article with sense, insight and confidence, so thank you for assuring me I’m not alone in my thoughts in the UK.

  21. I enjoyed reading this article, and agree with most of it. Nowadays in Britian it seems uncool not to be cynical, and that includes most TV hosts. Wogan’s commentry is bigotry in disguse and it is time for him to go. I disagree, however, about Paddy o’Connel, as I find him just as cynical. He is lazy, dull, speaks in a droning monotone and just rambles on, never saying anything constructive. His ‘jokes’ are lame and his descriptions lack imagination (eg “if you like yodelling you’ll be in heavan”)
    I’d like to hear Danny Wallace do it. I agree with Ben Gray also, yet I think the X-Factor is unwatchable trash and deserves the ‘camp/kitch/cheesy’ image eurovision has.
    My faveorates this year have been Portugal and Turkey

  22. ummm some facts i think are wrong. you said that the uk and ireland vote for each other well that aint quite true in 2003 ireland did not vote for the uk at all and in 2007 the uk did not vote for ireland so its is quite obvious we dont and also if it was all hype then why would the esc change there policy and bring back the judges, they can obviously see that there is some sort of bloc voting

  23. Kara, very few of the relationships usually cited are actually hard-and-fast 100%-guaranteed 12 point swaps which was part of my point.

    The EBU have changed the voting system because of the damaging perception that there was bloc voting, not necessarily because there actually was bloc voting.

  24. Doctorvee has it spot on when commenting on the “perception” of bloc voting. But that is actually quite a big issue for the original western european nations. If you hear during the scoring 12 points going to predictable candidates, coupled with a cynical commentator (Sir T) that message sticks in the mind.

    It does I feel play a considerable part statistically, but it doesn’t “decide” a result, it does do present some mathematical barriers. Bloc voting DOES exist, but not to the extent some people claim.

    Regarding UK entries : It’s a case of wanting it both ways. We’d never be able to send a top act because they wouldn’t do it as it’s considered a joke/laugh at the foreigners (propogated by Wogan over the last couple of decades).. and then complain when the crap act we sent did badly! The fact is all these “new” countries be they Baltic, former USSR, former Yugoslavia, all seem to take it quite seriously and send some of their top stars who are also known within their region. Probably the main reason they vote for eachother a bit.

    Times change. UK used to send acts who were “big” back in the 60s and early 70s and tended to do pretty well as a consequence. Even mid 70s through mid 90s we racked up lots of 2nd places with rubbish.. 15 2nd places in total I believe … we aren’t bothered any more other than whinging on the Sunday morning after the show.

    2008 said it all. Andy Abraham sung ok with a dull song. Terry got miffed because he personally backed it on the UK show and gave his “golden vote” to get it into the sing-off when the UK public had already rejected it. To put things into total perspective, the song when released in the UK charts couldn’t get in the Top 75. How can Brits criticise the rest of Europe for not liking a song the UK public clearly didn’t in the first place??

  25. Block voting obv exists.
    Ireland won 4 times in the 90’s
    UK won 1 time
    Italy won all in the east, and when Juries existed nearly EVERY country gave at least 1 point to UK and Ireland SO…
    I hope juries come back
    Ukraine has gr8 music anyway and we dont need dumb Russia or Baltic countries to help us win