Eurovision has long been subject to ridicule by much of western Europe with its trashy and manufactured pop considered far below our musical tastes with audiences consisting of largely excitable teenage girls and members of the gay community.
But as this year’s competition in Azerbaijan is used as a platform by human rights and pro-democracy campaigners to highlight abuses largely ignored by the western media until now, should the conscientious among us be taking it a little more seriously as a tool for change?
The oil-rich state in the south caucus was barely known to most before reports began to emerge of families being evicted from their homes to make way for the glittery Crystal Hall, which hosts this year’s show.
But a simple Google search will unleash a torrent of articles offering an insight into the authoritarian regime’s crackdown on independent media, opposition parties and human rights activists.
Fuad Hasanov, director of the Azeri human rights and democracy organisation Democracy Monitor, said before last week it was almost impossible to get any media attention to cover their plight. Now he’s juggling more international journalists than he can manage.
Previously the competition has been used by other former soviet states to promote themselves to a western Europe who barely knew they were there.
When Estonia won in 2001 the government launched a multi-million pound nation-branding campaign on the back of it and Ukraine specifically entered the competition to improve its international image, according to Paul Jordan, who recently completed a PhD on the Eurovision and state-building and branding by former soviet states.
Dr Eurovision, as he is also known, said: “It’s not seen as a tacky contest as it is in the west. It’s seen, for some countries, as the only way of promoting themselves – along with the European football championships and the Olympics. Estonia’s [Eurovision] was called Return to Europe distancing itself from its soviet past, but tragically, its also a way of getting themselves on the world map.”
Azerbaijan is also clearly taking it very seriously, spending more than a billion dollars on the event – the most expensive contest ever, and equally hoping to put themselves on the map, bolster tourism and prove they are capable of putting on prestigious international events.
But the government clearly didn’t bargain on the attention given to its human rights record with activists getting almost as much attention as the 56-year-old event.
The European Broadcasting Union, which runs Eurovision and is made up of each member’s state broadcaster, has also come under criticism for failing to put pressure on the Azerbaijani government or for even allowing it to compete.
Jordan said: “Eurovision is first and foremost a television show and EBU is not a political organisation, but there are questions when the organisation has survived on a free press and Azerbaijan has journalists in prison for criticising the government. There is no free press here, and they have not addressed that at all. I would say the EBU are at fault, but it’s maybe not a question for now, it’s a question for who they let in to the EBU in the first place. These sort of questions are for when they joined in 2008.”
Despite his political interest Jordan is also a fan of the competition, but says he has given up on predicting the winner, however, while the Russian entry is clearly an obvious choice he would love to see Ukraine’s entrant take first place after an MP described the mixed-race singer as ‘unorganically Ukrainian’.
Whether you love it or hate it, he said, the Eurovision has at least created a dialogue on the issues facing Azerbaijan. However it remains to be seen whether once the Eurovision road-show moves on, the media circus moves with it.