PM ‘disappointed’ by decision to block Zelensky from addressing Eurovision final
Rishi Sunak is “disappointed” by the decision of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) to block Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky from addressing the grand final of the Eurovision Song Contest.
The body, which produces the event, said on Thursday night that it had declined Mr Zelensky’s request to speak on Saturday over fears it could politicise the contest.
He had wanted to make an unannounced video appearance and had been expected to implore the global audience of millions to continue backing his country in its fight to repel Russian invaders.
The EBU said Mr Zelensky had “laudable intentions” but “regrettably” his request was against the rules.
On Friday, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “The Prime Minister believes it would be fitting for President Zelensky to address the event and we’re disappointed by the decision from the European Broadcasting Union.
“The values and freedoms that President Zelensky and the people of Ukraine are fighting for are not political, they’re fundamental, and Eurovision themselves recognised that last year when they rightly suspended Russia’s participation from the competition.”
There are no plans to intervene and ask organisers to change their mind, Downing Street suggested.
In a statement ahead of the Eurovision final, Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer said “our hearts will be with people in Ukraine who are fighting for their sovereignty and survival”.
She added: “If there was any justice this final would be taking place in Kyiv, but we are honoured in the UK to be able to host this event on their behalf and to welcome legions of fans and media.”
Former prime minister Boris Johnson said “it would have been right to hear from” Mr Zelensky during the final.
Writing on Twitter, he added: “There is only one reason the contest is not in Ukraine and that is because of Putin’s illegal war.”
Mr Zelensky later thanked the UK for hosting as he expressed his gratitude for the donation of Storm Shadow long-range precision missiles in a conversation with Mr Sunak.
A Downing Street spokesman said: “President Zelensky thanked the Prime Minister for Liverpool’s role in hosting tomorrow’s Eurovision Song Contest on behalf of Ukraine.
“The Prime Minister said he was proud the UK could do this for the Ukrainian people and looked forward to the day that the contest could be held on Ukrainian soil once again.”
Liverpool City Region mayor Steve Rotheram said he would be speaking with both the Ukrainian ambassador and the mayor of Lviv, who are both in the city for the final, “to discuss what we can do to provide a platform” for Mr Zelesnky.
In its statement on Thursday, the EBU noted that 11 Ukrainian artists, including last year’s winners Kalush Orchestra, are performing and 37 locations from around Ukraine are being shown.
The BBC has said the broadcast of this year’s contest is expected to be watched by more than 160 million viewers worldwide.
On Friday, BBC Eurovision commentators Rylan Clark and Scott Mills stressed the contest is non-political.
Clark said: “At the end of the day we are commentators so we don’t get involved in show format. I just think Eurovision, people say it is political – votes here, votes there.
“From being on the inside it is the least political experience you could ever have, actually.”
Radio DJ Mills added: “People always ask, ‘Do you think it is political?’. It really isn’t. It is a song contest.”
Clark continued: “It is a song contest and that is what we are here to say.”
The pair, who provided TV commentary for the two semi-finals this week and will host radio coverage of the grand final, also stressed that as last year’s winner, Ukraine and its culture were being celebrated across Liverpool throughout the event.
Clark said: “Ukraine, this is their party in our country.”
“We always said that we would be true to that because they were the winner and I think it is very visible in the city,” added Mills.
BBC director general Tim Davie told the Eurovisioncast podcast that he “understood” the EBU decision as the “history” of the contest “has not been a platform for political statement”.
Mr Davie also said: “This country, Ukraine, is the victim of an aggressor.
“This war is something that we all feel deeply is wrong and if you watch the broadcast, I don’t think you’ll have any doubt that this is a celebration across Europe, for freedom, for democracy, and it’s quite right we do that.”
They spoke at the British Music Experience on the Liverpool waterfront, where Zoe Ball hosted a special edition of her BBC Radio 2 breakfast show which featured guests including last year’s UK entrant Sam Ryder and The Fizz, featuring members of former Eurovision winners Bucks Fizz.
Claire McColgan, director of Culture Liverpool, told Times Radio it would have been “fantastic” to hear from Mr Zelensky, “especially for the people from Ukraine who have come here wishing it was at home”.
Kalush Orchestra piper Tymofii Muzychuk told the PA news agency Mr Zelensky would have only wanted to thank the British people for hosting the contest.
He said: “Actually we think that President Zelensky would have wanted to thank all the British people for doing this and, as we can see, Britain took this very responsibly, the UK. And so actually I think it would have been nice for him to talk.”
Kalush Orchestra won last year’s contest but, owing to the Russian invasion of the country, hosting duties were awarded to the runner-up, the UK.
Mr Zelensky said earlier this week that he would have preferred Eurovision to take place in a neighbouring country.
Speaking to the BBC, he said: “I have great respect for the United Kingdom and its society. It is an amazing country.
“From the very start my opinion has been that if we can’t host Eurovision it should take place in one of the countries that share a border with us, such as Slovakia, Poland or any other country which our people can reach easily. Something nearby.”
It comes after the full line-up of the grand final was revealed following the second knockout round on Thursday night.
After 16 countries competed, the 10 remaining spots went to Poland, Australia, Cyprus, Albania, Estonia, Belgium, Austria, Lithuania, Armenia and Slovenia.
The 10 countries that qualified from Tuesday’s semi-final were Croatia, Moldova, Switzerland, Finland, Czechia, Israel, Portugal, Sweden, Serbia and Norway.
They will join the so-called “big five” nations – the UK, Germany, France, Italy and Spain – who each get a free pass because of their financial contributions to the event, along with last year’s winners Ukraine.
The final is expected to draw a large TV audience after Thursday’s semi-final was watched by an average of 2.4 million viewers with a peak audience of 3.4 million.
The Eurovision grand final on Saturday will air live on BBC One.