Eurovision 2012: BBC's Panorama looks for the Azerbaijan the postcard films won't show us this week
Even before tonight's broadcast of a BBC expose into the alleged corruption at work in the highest echelons of Azeri government, things have happened this week in the Crystal Hall which would have made an interesting addendum to this 30-minute documentary. On Friday evening, the Euroclub ground to a halt as the DJ played a dance remix of the Armenian 2010 entry Apricot Stone. The dancefloor cleared, an Azeri flag was waved in defiance and the DJ was advised not to play any music of Armenian origin for the rest of Eurovision fortnight. Then there was the hacking of the long-standing ESC Today website, with 12 years of work deleted, by people claiming to be against the 'gay parade' which was heading for Azerbaijan and they wouldn't stand for. It's still not known if the hackers were daft kids of non-Azeri origin playing a particularly cruel joke or if it really did come from a right-wing pressure group but either way, nobody deserved that happening to them.
What Paul Kenyon's report did focus on was the influence and power president Ilham Aliyev and his family have over the people, whether they like it or not. Two protestors were thrown into jail over a sketch where a donkey was portrayed as being clever enough to play the violin. There must be real insecurity issues somewhere.
Eurovision fans probably already knew about the Azerbaijani people questioned by government officials in 2009 over televotes for Armenia (one such interviewee even spoke out on camera) and we are also aware of people being dragged from their homes as the bulldozers descended to improve the aesthetics around the Crystal Hall.
People in Azerbaijan are not allowed to like this song, apparently
The baffling thing about the whole affair is that the serene looking lady from the EBU who was interviewed on camera seemed fully aware of what was going on in the run-up to this year's Contest. It was worryingly clear that the thought of doing something about it was the last thing on her mind. After the 2009 televoting incident, no real sanctions were made against Azerbaijan and its continued presence in the competition (indeed, Safura arrived in Oslo the following year as a clear favourite and the televote nastiness was never really raised again) which makes you wonder if the amount of oil cash Azerbaijan brings to the EBU pot is more important than anything else. Georgia isn't anywhere near as rich as Azerbaijan, which may explain why an EBU which claimed this evening to have a freedom of speech "at its core" had no problem disqualifying a Georgian entry where the lyrical word play decried Putin. Lebanon was banned from the Contest before it even made its debut when its officials were upfront about the fact they wouldn't show the Israeli entry. Wasn't the actions of the Azerbaijani broadcaster (and then the government) against Armenia in 2009 tantamount to the same thing? If all things are fair in Eurovision, shouldn't Ictimai TV have faced the same punishment?
Thirty minutes isn't a long time to tell the whole story and there was a lot this programme didn't touch upon. The regime's attitude to the gay community was one, an unexpected omission when you consider the sexuality of a fair chunk of the fans and bloggers heading for the Contest each year. It also would have been interesting to have heard from an accredited fan heading to Baku, a fan who knows full well what sort of regime was in operation in the background, to get their opinion on things - and why they are happy to head to Azerbaijan this year. I'd liked to have seen the contrasting views.
The one part I found pointless was trying to force Engelbert Humperdinck into making a comment on the freedoms of the people of Azerbaijan. As Sandie Shaw said at the start of the show, it's the journalists' jobs to uncover the truths the pop stars' presence draws the world's eyes to. There have been international football matches held in Azerbaijan long before Ell/Nikki won last year and nobody questioned the teams' presence on Baku soil then. All the acts are doing is turning up where the home leg of this round has been rubber stamped to take place.
The Eurovision rules state that the winner of the Contest hosts the following year. In that respect, the EBU is abiding by the rules in Baku in 2012 in just the same way they oversaw the competition when it rumbled in to the likes of Copenhagen in 2001 and Birmingham in 1998. I can't lie, as a Eurovision fan, I will not be boycotting the show this year and I'm looking forward to seeing the semi-finals and Saturday's ultimate decider. Tonight's show won't make me switch them off.
But if this evening's Panorama taught me anything, it's not so much about the problems affecting the people of Azerbaijan (arguably, they've been on the world's radar a long time before Running Scared) - it's that a long time ago, somewhere in Geneva, somebody was contracted to build a very long, steadfast fence which the European Broadcasting Union is determined to perch upon no matter how hard anyone attempts to shake it.
As far as I know, nobody from Geneva has told the DJ in Euroclub they can play whatever damn song they want. And that's a real shame.