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'This will be tricky': Diplomacy at RTÉ after public urged broadcaster to boycott Eurovison 2019

Last June, Israeli media queried why Ireland had yet to confirm its participation in Eurovision 2019.

RTÉ. Source: Shutterstock/Danielo

IRELAND’S PARTICIPATION IN Eurovision 2019 was a politically tense decision for national broadcaster RTÉ to make. 

Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act show diplomacy was required as RTÉ management responded to calls from both sides of the political divide between June and December last year – before and after Ireland confirmed its participation in this year’s competition. 

Israeli singer Netta was crowned winner at last year’s contest. Her win immediately sparked controversy over 2019′s competition, the first time in 20 years that Israel will play host. 

In June, one month after Netta won in Lisbon and three months before Ireland declared its intention to travel to the Middle East to compete in Eurovision 2019, Channel 10 News in Israel wrote to RTÉ asking why the national broadcaster had yet to confirm its participation in the event. 

Members of the public also contacted the national broadcaster. On 5 August, Irish Delegation Head producer Michael Kealy received an email quoting recent media comments he’d made saying that a boycott of Eurovision 2019 in Israel would be “the antithesis of what Eurovision is all about”.

“Let me share two infographics with you,” a member of the public wrote to Kealy. “After you have viewed them, can you reply to my email and state that, while you make merry in Israel your moral compass is not offended knowing that there is mass slaughter being conducted just a few kilometres down the road.”

“If your moral compass is not offended then please do explain “what Eurovision is all about”. This is not a political issue, it is a human rights issue.”

Kealy, who said he was “tempted to reply”, first asked Eurovision head of press Rayna Connery should he respond.

“I would resist,” Connery replied. “It will only give further oxygen to the story.”

‘Group at the gate’

This year’s competition kicks off on 14 May in Tel Aviv. Israel previously hosted the Eurovision in 1979 and 1999. The country won the competition in 1978 with Ireland’s Colm Wilkinson placing fifth with ‘Born to Sing’.

In 1998, Israel came first again in the Eurovision when Dana International won with ‘Diva’ while Ireland’s entry ‘Is Always Over Now?’ performed by Dawn Martin came ninth. 

Two years after Eurovision 1999, the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC) was established to raise awareness about the Occupied Territories and Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

On 30 August last year, the IPSC wrote to RTÉ Director General Dee Forbes and Kealy requesting a meeting to discuss this year’s Eurovision in Israel.

In reply, RTÉ strategic advisor Rory Coveney urged Forbes to forward IPSC’s email to managing director of news Jon Williams, director of audience Adrian Lynch and director of content Jim Jennings.

“This will be tricky,” Coveney warned. 

As part of its ‘Campaign to Boycott Eurovision 2019′, the IPSC gathered signatures in anticipation of a meeting with director general Forbes.

Shortly before RTÉ announced last September that it will not sanction any member of staff who doesn’t want to travel to Eurovision 2019, Forbes met with representatives of IPSC.

ISPC. IPSC members present their petition to RTÉ on 26 September 2018. Source: IPSC

During the meeting, members of the campaign presented a petition with more than 11,000 signatures backing a boycott. The group said that it wanted Ireland to shun the event “due to Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people”. RTÉ’s Kealy had already travelled earlier that month to confirm Ireland’s participation in the contest with the European Broadcasting Union [EBU]. 

On the day IPSC members delivered their petition, RTÉ’s communications staff decided that in the event of any press queries to “stick” to a statement laying out the rules of the competition and to confirm that no boycott discussions had taken place between EBU members. 

“Agreed… There’s a group at the gate with a photographer and a flag,” a staff member remarked that afternoon.

‘Pit of my stomach’

Unsurprisingly, September’s meeting between Forbes and the IPSC received mixed reaction. 

RTÉ received a letter from a member of the public supporting Ireland’s participation in Eurovision 2019 shortly after the meeting, saying that “I have no doubt that Israel has questions to answer I nevertheless support them”.

On 1 October, the Ireland Israel Alliance wrote to Director General Forbes criticising the IPSC meeting and “an immoral, divisive and, quite frankly, anti-Semitic boycott” and argued that it was hypocritical to call for an Israeli boycott. 

“We heard no lobbying calls when the Eurovision was held in Serbia in 2008, despite its involvement in the Yugoslav wars of the early 1990s. Neither did we hear any outrage when Russia hosted the competition in 2009, despite its invasion of part of Georgia in 2008.”

“Or Azerbaijan in 2012, despite its continuing dispute with Armenia over the territory of Nagarno-Karabakh, or Ukraine in 2017, despite the violent Ukranian revolution of 2014.”

PORTUGAL-LISBON-EUROVISION SONG CONTEST-WINNER 2018 Eurovision winner Netta. Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Four days later, however, RTÉ received an email from a member of the public further criticising its decision to participate this year.

“When I read in the Irish Times this morning that RTÉ is going to push on with the Eurovision despite 11,000 signatures pleading for a boycott, my heart sank to the pit of my stomach.

“I think it’s disgraceful and highly degrading that we as the national broadcaster would give any sort of ammunition and integrity to a state that doesn’t respect the basic understanding of value for human life.”

RTÉ received further enquiries from two Israeli media outlets and one German media outlet in October requesting additional comments on RTÉ’s position. These were turned down by RTÉ’s press office.

In late December, members of IPSC once again called on RTÉ to not broadcast Eurovision events in “Israel’s illegal settlements, including those in occupied East Jerusalem. This is the least RTÉ should do to be in line with international law and European policy.”

RTÉ responded once again by pointing out that the Eurovision is a non-political event organised and run by the European Broadcasting Union which has sought assurances from the Israeli state regarding security and access for all to attend. 

With just three months until Eurovision 2019 kicks off the controversy will likely roll on until May. 

Betty Purcell, a former RTÉ producer and spokesperson for the IPSC, has said that the campaign will continue its call for a boycott of Eurovision 2019. 

“We continue to push for it,” Purcell has said. “We’ll be re-presenting our petition – which was at 11,000 signatures and now has 15,000 signatures – to RTÉ.”

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