Politics cannot be avoided but impact on contest limited, says Eurovision organiser

Staff of the 66th annual Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) pose for a group photo at the PalaOlimpico indoor stadium on the eve of the event's final, in Turin, Italy, 13 May 2022. [EPA-EFE/Di Marco]

It is naive to think cultural institutions can be wholly separated from what is happening in the world and the invasion of Ukraine was so extraordinary that it required an exceptional reaction, the head of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) told EURACTIV in an interview.

Noel Curran is the Director-General of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) which brings together public service media organisations from 55 European countries. He spoke to EURACTIV’s journalist Gerardo Fortuna on the sidelines of the Eurovision Song Contest in Turin.

This edition has been considered one of the most political ever following the decision to exclude Russia in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine. Is it feasible to keep politics separate from the conduct of the contest?

It is not always possible for any cultural institution, broadcaster, or sports federation to pretend politics is not happening around you. To think that everybody is completely separated from what is happening in the world is naive.

We try our best to make the event as apolitical as possible. Actually, having allowed Russia to perform at the Eurovision would have made the event more political. We would have had a much greater spotlight on what was happening, we would have had boycotts, and we would have had a whole range of different outcomes.

Some argue that Ukraine’s entry will be the foregone winner surfing the emotional wave of the war, do you think this will be the case?

People say that politics drive the event’s main outcome. But look at the winners: we’ve had Portugal, the Netherlands, and Italy in recent years. How was that political? While there are some political dynamics, the event’s main outcome is not influenced by politics as much as some people think.

Of course, as I said, the idea that any cultural institution can be 100% separate from what is happening in broader society is naive. So when Russia invaded Ukraine, it was such a dramatic, extraordinary event that it did require a response.

Could this decision to ban Russia be some sort of milestone that sets a precedent for the next editions too?

What we’re seeing now is so exceptional that it is hard to draw comparisons. What has happened – and I hope in my lifetime, I never see again, see one European country invade another –  was so extraordinary that it required an exceptional reaction.

I don’t think it means that we’re going to be excluding somebody out of the Eurovision every year. This is quite an extraordinary, exceptional set of circumstances that hopefully will never arise again.

Online abusive behaviour against artists and the crew is also becoming another major issue.

In recent years, we’ve had an actual explosion in terms of interactions and coverage on social media. With that increase, you will always get an increased risk of harassment and inappropriate behaviour.

We saw that a couple of weeks ago, some cases aimed at individuals, so we took a public stance against that and started monitoring what is happening on social platforms very closely.

But did you also expect some kind of reaction from the social platforms?

I always feel that the platforms can do more about some of the objectionable content that appears there.

We have a good working relationship with them, but in many ways, we are lucky because we have a machine that works behind the scenes on Eurovision.

It’s other events by smaller organisations that don’t have a machine that can’t respond as we did. They’re the ones that are really worried and the ones that really need protection as they aren’t big enough to defend their staff and their colleagues.

This year’s Eurovision will be the first multi-site 5G broadcast show. What is the expected impact of this technology in the future?

We believe that 5G is coming offering many opportunities for broadcasters. We at the EBU think we need to work with other broadcasters, both within the public service media and the commercial sector, to ensure that broadcasting is not forgotten in terms of the development of 5G.

When it came to Eurovision, broadcasters completely embraced this 5G experiment using the event’s publicity. It was about experimenting with the technology and making a public statement to remember that broadcasting should not be forgotten in the 5G technological revolution.

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