The FIFA corruption scandal may be growing steadily worse, but yet another Swiss-based organization may not be far behind. The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which manages the Eurovision Song Contest, has come up with its own version of hidden agendas, lack of transparency and blatant conflict of interest. Of concern, too, is the impact of such abuses on international organizations such as UNICEF, UNHCR and other agencies which have benefitted from collaboration or sponsorship by these groups. Essential Edge co-editor Edward Girardet explores the issues.
Geneva – Nearly two weeks ago, Australian Kath Lockett was fired as Head of Press for the Junior Eurovision Song Contest, one of four such events ‘owned’ by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). The Geneva-based organization represents some 73 member broadcasters and receives much of its taxpayer-sourced funding from the European Union and individual countries.
The reasons for this, she was told, was that she had impugned EBU’s reputation publicly. Not only had she queried the organization’s manner of orchestrating its tender process, but also the fact that at least one consulting company owned and operated by a Eurovision employee has been using insider relations to grab a significant contract for a decade.
“I was shocked and disappointed, but I have no regrets asking these questions because it has been an issue for quite some time,” Lockett said. Over the past three years, Lockett and her team have managed to turn around the Junior Eurovision Song Contest, which was faltering after 2012, into a highly viewed programme. Wow!Works, one of the companies currently bidding for the consultancy, ran the Junior contest from 2011 and 2012, but was taken off the job for poor ratings and reduced participation by EBU members.
A questionable tender process
On 16 October, 2015, a Friday evening at close of business, the EBU posted a tender process for support services of less than one calendar month for all four of Eurovision’s highly sought-after events, notably the Eurovision Song Contest; Junior Eurovision Song Contest; Eurovision Young Dancers; and Eurovision Young Musicians, all of which reach an audience of 200 million viewers combined. Only companies can apply, which means that even EBU’s own staff media teams, such as Lockett’s, who feel they are the best equipped to do the job, are not allowed to apply.
This left only Monday, 18 October for interested companies to put questions or to access other forms of information required for the bid. The question period was expanded to a week, but the 30-day tender period, which many consider too short for effective transparency, remains in force. This was one of the issues that Lockett, who is highly popular among both press and Junior Eurovision fans, was dismissed over.
When approached for comment this week, EBU’s Head of Communications, Michelle Roverelli, first said that she had no idea what the ‘Lockett affair’ was about, but then emailed back saying that “we do not intend to comment on the termination of contracts with individuals.” There is also no mention of the issue on EBU’s official website.This reluctance to discuss the matter publicly is reminiscent of the way FIFA dealt with uncomfortable questions until cascading events forced it out into the open.
EBU: Irregularities nothing new
The EBU has been long criticized for not engaging in open tenders, plus other irregularities. This includes management of the Eurovision website, which has been overseen by Wow!Works for 10 years. The EBU also has been under scrutiny over the past few months for what has been described by some critics as attempted smear campaigns, organizational conflicts of interest, shady six-figure contracts, jobs for the boys and efforts to brush potentially embarrassing management incidents under the carpet.
One of these actions was spearheaded by Estonian Jarmo Siim, a former head of press, who tried to besmirch the Swedish Eurovision Song Contest winner, Måns Zelmerlöw, with false rumours and then sought to conceal what he had done. Siim resigned voluntarily. His immediate boss, Dutchman Sietse Bakker, who owns and operates Wow!Works, was ordered to head an investigation into his employee’s alleged misconduct. This was dropped by Jon Ola Sand, a Norwegian television producer and the Executive Supervisor of the Eurovision Song Contest, following Siim’s departure.
According to the Swedish newspaper, Aftonbladet, the EBU refused to persevere with the investigation despite ample evidence and requests that the organization come clean. EBU’s attitude now makes it awkward for Sweden, which is scheduled to host the 2016 event in less than seven months time.
Conflicts of Interest
One possibility raised by a growing number of Swedish, German, Greek, Serbian and British media is Bakker’s blatant conflict of interest with regard to Wow!Works, which has two separate contracts with EBU totalling over 440,000 Euros. For one of these, notably Eurovision’s web and online services, Bakker was never obliged to compete in open tender. He was simply handed the contract.
The EBU’s apparent argument for supporting this lack of open tender is that it would prove too costly. Other international organizations in Geneva, such as the UN agencies, are all obliged to solicit at least three bids. There are also rules about employees having their own consultancy companies take on contracts within their organizations to avoid conflict of interest. While EBU is a privately registered company, and not a non-profit as many assume, it plays on the fact that it provides a form of European public service with all its programmes and support facilities.
The four Eurovision events represent relatively large support contracts. Hence the concerns regarding such a short turn-around (less than a month) for credible submissions to be prepared, analysed and then selected. This leaves little time for the successful bidding company to get cracking on its support for the Junior Eurovision, which takes place on Saturday, 21 November.
Another critical question is transparency. All companies, successful or not, are contractually obliged not to reveal publicly that they have submitted a bid unless specifically granted permission by EBU management. This leaves the whole process open to suspicion that well-placed companies or individuals familiar with the internal workings of the organization command a significant advantage.
A further concern is intellectual property. The tender agreements allow the EBU to steal ideas from submitting companies and then use them. The gag clause prevents anyone from protesting.
Curiously, on the day of the tender, Bakker, an official Eurovision employee, announced that he would be standing down as its Events Supervisor after Stockholm 2016. He also announced (on Facebook) that Wow!Works would be placing a bid to provide the same web and online services that it has been providing for a decade. Presumably, maintain critics, he not only has both insider relations and knowledge, but also has received permission from EBU to talk publicly about his bid.
Too many pointed questions
It was regard to this conflict of interest that Lockett began asking pointed questions online. Her public Facebook queries, which she deleted after 15 minutes, included whether Bakker, whose company earns 321,955 Euros in EBU fees annually, had any intention of remunerating the volunteers who normally write for free for the Eurovision site. She also asked whether the video staff will receive a share in any of the highly lucrative YouTube-revenue generated by the two billion Eurovision Song Contest views. According to Lockett, the site earns 1,000 Euros per one million views. This implies that Wow!Works has been earning far more than its EBU consultancy fee.
The reason why she did this, Lockett explained, “is that I have had serious concerns since 2013 about what was going on. I documented these issues within EBU and wrote reports, but nothing happened.” She further added that she was never consulted on the short duration of the tender process. When she saw the incredibly limiting conditions of the way it was being carried out, she felt that she had to speak out. “I was angry, but I am glad that I did it,” she said.
EBU: A fledgling FIFA?
Lockett was immediately fired after posting her questions. According to Lockett, EBU had informed her that her comments had proved damaging to its reputation. As some observers point out, Locket’s dismissal is not unlike that of Phaedra Almajid, the female international press officer for the Qatar 2022 bid. Almajid was kicked out after blowing the whistle on FIFA over irregularities when selecting the World Cup 2022 winner.
Without doubt, EBU is small fry when compared to FIFA’s massive graft and lack of transparency. Nevertheless, it is an international institution supported by a combination of tax monies, sponsorship and sales. Hence many believe it has an obligation to be openly accountable.
Already, parliamentarians in Berne have raised concerns about the manner with which FIFA and other Swiss-based international organizations do business and the blemishes they are placing on the country’s reputation as a host with their negative actions. As a result, they have voted in legislation requiring that all international organizations respect certain norms, particularly transparency. EBU can now expect to be one of those organizations that the Swiss government may look into.
Swiss-American Edward Girardet is a journalist and author. He is also co-editor of The Essential Edge and currently a Journalist-in-Resident with the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.