Jury Duties

Having collated the points of eleven international juries, presenters Cynthia Ní Mhurchú and Gerry Ryan took a quick glance at the overall scoreboard. At this point in proceedings during the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest, eight countries had yet to score a single point, a third of all participating songs. All this would change when the Maltese jury was called for their deliberations: Romania, Switzerland, Croatia, and Slovakia all received points, and all amongst top-marks at that, lifting the four countries from the basement to the foyer in one go. To most eyes, something suspicious had occurred. Mutterings and incredulous chuckles flickered through the audience within the Point Theatre that night. More than a few eyebrows were doubtlessly raised at home, too. “Slovakia, twelve points,” announced a straight-faced spokesman, a phrase not heard before or since.

This is not the only example of Maltese voting eccentricity. The undervalued, unnoticed Luxembourg entries of 1992 and 1993 were unexpected targets of Maltese ten points, gifts which lifted bottom-placed songs to mid-table. Did these acts of Maltese curiosity mean that the juries of the time were all potential cabals of shallow nobodies willing to swap 10s and 12s with like-minded counterparts? One could look at Greece and Cyprus, always scratching each others backs; or perhaps Turkey and its Muslim cousins in Yugoslavia and latterly Bosnia-Herzegovina.

To the frustration of fans, always eager to counter any accusation that Eurovision is a political stitch-up, juries could spoil the argument by showing clear acts of regional and geopolitical bias. Malta might be the most notorious proponent of vote swapping, but examples of potential copycat behavior are not too difficult to uncover.

But this article is not here to denigrate the juries, to use a couple of potential and alleged acts of suspicious innuendo to suggest that the jury system should be scrapped for good. In the eccentric and curious world of Eurovision, one of the only awards shows on the planet that allows the audience “in” on the voting mechanism used to choose the winner, the flawed but necessary use of a jury as balance to the whims of a late-night phone-in audience has shown itself to be the only legitimate way to encourage fairness and credibility to the show overall. We may roll our eyes at their conservative tastes, yet Eurovision’s juries doubtlessly saved the Contest from being devoured from the inside.

As the Contest moved into the 21st century, from TV studio to arena, from insular curiosity to global phenomenon, it needed to embrace new ways of collating the votes needed to choose the ‘best song’ amongst two-dozen pick-and-mix varieties of music from across Europe. Technology allowed the organizers to replace the jury system with, on paper, the fairest form of democratic opinion gathering: telephone and SMS voting. Broadly speaking, from the 1990s to the mid-2000s only those countries with technical struggles had no excuse not to use the viewing public as their only scoring mechanism.

This shift from the analogue age to digital future saw televoting gradually usurp juries, plucky San Marino notwithstanding, whose televoting results are contrived averages from a clutch-bag of other countries. By the turn of the millennium, hosted in Sweden, all participating countries had to use televoting. This was joined by texting (SMS in Euro-speak) between 2001 and 2015, a period of relative technological stability. Up until 2008 viewers had all the say in winners and losers, a time when arguably the overall quality of content began to weaken. Echoing the innuendo decades earlier over potentially easily-swayed juries, the legitimacy and durability of Eastern Europe’s attitude to voting outside their immediate surroundings broke out into mainstream commentary. Little wonder that amongst the push-and-pull of this angst were radical changes introduced, when a Swedish-broadcaster inspired decision to reconfigure the expert jury awarding points alongside viewers doing the same was introduced sixteen years after the initial televoting revolution. The maximum number of points available jumped to 1,008; the chance to get the infamous “nul points” reduced to almost statistically impossible.

From the start of the switch from jury to televote, the enthusiasm with which some countries abandoned talent for “moments” that relied on comedy, novelty and punchlines now seems unbelievable. Spain 2005 and 2008, Iceland 2006, the UK in both 2006 and 2007, Estonia 2008: the list of novelty songs grew, and encouraged a reputation for the Contest as something which seemed to have lost its way. Juries – those small band of professionals, experts, and local worthies – had to come back, to steer the ship into calmer waters.

In politics, it’s difficult to take back what the public are accustomed to call their own. Change a voting system from first-past-the-post to proportional representation, and the public are happier that their ballot will mean something. Change it back, and the public become disquiet and upset. Their vote means less, as the overall result is likely to be less proportional, less representative. Suddenly the ‘establishment’ has pressed reverse, and this is concluded to mean something negative, something bad.

At Eurovision, the return of the juries has been accompanied by something similar to this reaction. Critics of the jury system point to what has been ‘taken away’. If the viewers want, say, Keiino to win the Contest, then the jury system should not act as an anchor, dragging away the votes and enforcing their own song as overall winner. No matter that since 2016 the two halves are ostensibly equal, a clear and open 50/50 split: the perception amongst some fans is unfairness and unwarranted, an establishment panel outweighing democratic public voting.

This view is misguided. As noticed during the ‘televoting era’, asking viewers without checks and balances turns voting into a dangerously imbalanced, potentially illegitimate game of chance. Diaspora voting became more important than the worth of any individual song. Credible songs suffered as ‘jokes’ took centre stage. While some of the unfortunate jury behaviour remains – Russia and the post-Soviet republics on one extreme, Greece/Cyprus on another – the balance between televote and jury irons out anything too clearly biased from ruining the scoring system. Italy may feel hard done by, North Macedonia may feel disappointed, Australia may feel like defeat slapped success around the face, and yet the alternative would have been televoting disallowing any of these countries from ever finishing so highly in the final scoring.

The EBU now requires each country to openly display voting decisions, and publishes them all for public consumption after the Finale. Number-crunchers point to certain quirks from countries as proof that the jury system has been allowed to ‘fester’ game-playing and bias. These accusations are weak and threaten to damage the good work done to repair the damage of 100% televote. The frustration over ‘your’ song failing to win, or even qualify, is an emotion shared by anybody whose favourite doesn’t walk home with the Oscar, Grammy, or MTV astronaut. The machinery within the awards show voting processes matter: too often, the shadowy and unaccountable nature of the processes contradicts all claims of credibility. Consider the Grammys, whose voting system is so mired in controversy that artists refuse to participate.

Now consider Eurovision, publishing unedited publication of both jury and televote decisions. Consider how better the Contest is for allowing viewers to ‘see’ how their votes match-up with experts on a judges panel, far more open and accountable than the judges behind desks on reality TV. Yes, back in the 1990s eyebrows were raised as 0-point debutants were showered with points they likely didn’t deserve. But voting was nowhere near as accountable and open back then. With no clear voting explanation at all, as happens at Eurovision Choir, the winners could well have been chosen by throwing a dart at a wall. Juries matter because they work. Juries work because they matter. When an award show can’t control the direction of travel, it’s not just the songwriters who feel shortchanged by the result.