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Eurovision: UK quitting the song contest would only be bad for brand Britain

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The organisers of the Eurovision Song Contest picked a really bad day to announce they had further reduced the low score the UK achieved this year in Israel. As the British public went to cast their ballots in the European elections amid ongoing strife over Brexit, Eurovision said that due to “an incorrect calculation” on the night, the score for Michael Rice’s entry, Bigger Than Us, had been lowered from a 16 to 11.

The decision added fuel to a campaign for the UK to quit Eurovision. Even before the competition, the pro-Brexit Daily Express reported that a YouGov poll had found Britain as split over Eurovision as over membership of the EU itself: 52% wanted to leave the competition, while 48% wanted to keep competing.

Television presenter Lorraine Kelly – considered an expert on matters Eurovision – said on her show: “I think it’s time to leave because it’s embarrassing … I’ve just had enough of it – it’s too political and too silly.”

Rice himself blamed Brexit: “I always knew I was going to come in this position because of Brexit. Do you know what? If it was Gary Barlow or Elton John, they still probably would have come last too.”

And once again, the UK occupied the dreaded bottom rung on the scoreboard – the fourth time in 16 years. But as one of the Eurovision Big Five, the UK contributes a considerable amount of funding to the event – £310,000, according to the most recent figures available, from 2012. Is it money well spent, or is the UK being short-changed? Let’s look at an example of a country that decided to quit, and see if it is worth it.

Dissatisfaction with the voting rules was one of Turkey’s main reasons for withdrawing ahead of the contest in 2013. But there was also a general feeling in Turkey – which paid a considerable sum to participate in Eurovision – that the nation should be in the Big Five with an automatic place in the final.

Turkey’s complaint was that it hadn’t been consulted over the European Broadcasting Union’s decision to reintroduce its system of split voting between national juries and the general public. Despite doing comparatively well under the new rules – coming second in 2010 and achieving a respectable seventh place in 2012 – it left.

In 2013 and 2014, the event wasn’t even broadcast in Turkey: according to state broadcaster TRT the low ratings of the spectacle did not warrant the fee. Yet given that 25% of Turkish households tuned in to watch the 2012 show, this sounded a bit contrived, and some suspected that a same-sex kiss during Finland’s rehearsals may have played a part in the decision.

Chance to shine

Eurovision offers a priceless opportunity to showcase local culture and generate interest – especially important for a country with a large tourism economy such as Turkey. Appealing to a European audience, and marketing themselves as being part of Europe – culturally and politically – were among the reasons behind Turkey’s decision to first enter Eurovision in the 1970s.

While it often scored poorly to begin with, continued participation paid off and from the late 1990s onwards, Turkey established itself as a top contender, showcasing a diverse musical and visual culture and even winning in 2003.

One of the main things Eurovision promotes is a sense inclusivity and tolerance. Austria’s 2014 winner Conchita Wurst, who performed in a dress and full beard, is now an international star. The competition’s campness has long made it popular among LGBTQ+ fans across Europe and much of the rest of the world – but TRT seems to have taken offence. Ibrahim Eren (the General Director of TRT) commented in 2018 that Turkey “cannot broadcast live at 9pm, when children are still awake, an Austrian with a beard and a skirt, who claims not to have a gender and says, ‘I am a man and a woman at the same time’.”

This attitude is, perhaps, a bigger hurdle than the voting system and the fees put together. Queerness is part of the DNA of Eurovision, and true fans of the competition celebrate that. There’s an enduring sense that this may be the main reason that Turkey remains outside the Eurovision fold. But now that Eren has been elected to the European Broadcasting Union’s executive board, the chance of a return may have increased.

The UK, meanwhile, was named Europe’s most LGBT-friendly country in 2014 and 2015. And what better platform on which to showcase these values to the world, than Eurovision?

No one likes a sore loser. Britain has hardly endeared itself to Europe over the past three years. As the Brexit debate has raged, anti-EU slogans from British Brexiteers have resounded around the continent. All the sulking over poor scores in Eurovision has hardly helped.

Surely now, when ties to Europe are under considerable strain, the only approach that could benefit the UK would be to use the contemporary songwriting skills and artistry that contribute a record £4.5 billion to the nation’s economy, to come back with a bang in 2020.

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