X Factor 2014 Final Preview: Star shines on Ben

Well, that put the cat amongst the pigeons. A “leak” in today’s Daily Star claiming that Ben took last week’s semi-final with 50% of the vote, ahead of Fleur on 22% and Andrea on 16%, saw a flip-flop at the top of the outright market.

Reaction in our comments section was equally febrile. Opinion was polarised, and it’s fair to say that Ben’s supporters were more willing to believe the story than Fleur’s backers. This is perfectly understandable on both sides – confirmation bias is strong at this stage of proceedings and your credulity will be based on how much you’re willing to believe such an outcome in the semi-final phone vote.

Full disclosure: at the time of writing, I have a reasonable green on Ben (for the uninitiated that means I make a profit in the event of him winning), a tiny green on Fleur, and a big red on Andrea taking the crown. I’ve generally been open minded on how to weigh my respective Ben/Fleur profits this weekend.

What’s the context to help us decide if we can trust the “leak”?

In recent years, the Daily Star’s record on X Factor leaks has been excellent, stretching back to the claim that Eoghan Quigg had topped the 2008 vote for the first five weeks. The following year, a leak in the paper suggested Rachel Adedeji topped the week 3 vote – something which stretched credulity after her two bottom two appearances in a row, but proved to be correct.

In 2011 they revealed that Kitty had been just off the bottom two after her pimp slot ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’. And that Janet was winning early votes, with The Risk, Johnny and Marcus second to her in weeks 2, 3 and 5. All were correct. In 2012 the Star told us Christopher Maloney had won weeks 1-7, with Jahmene his closest pursuer and Ella polling close to the bottom two. They were right again.

We only had one tidbit last year: that Nick McDonald won the Week 2 phone vote, which proved accurate once figures were released after the final. There were leaks last year that were inaccurate, but these were from The Sun, who on the morning of the week 6 Saturday show, exaggerated the extent of Sam Bailey’s lead, suggesting it was unprecedented and unsurpassable (she was beaten that week by Nicholas).

The Daily Star leaks have a pattern of only coming to light about those acts topping the vote that producers wish to bring down. What is unprecedented is having one come to light only on the day of the final. If Ben won the semi by that huge margin, it figures that he has won other weekly phone votes. So why wait till now to publicise a huge lead? It’s late in the game if the figures are accurate and the “insider source” is trying to instil a sense of complacency – surely one leak in the Star wouldn’t induce enough complacency to overturn that kind of lead in the space of a week.

Which leaves us with the possibility that the figures are inaccurate. It is always possible that producers will call our bluff at some point by feeding duff information to the Star, or that the Star might develop an agenda of its own. We expressed this concern about the Maloney leak in 2012, but our scepticism proved misplaced on that occasion.

So do we place our trust in the Star again? All the talk last week was of Fleur’s ‘Uptown Funk’, but we thought it was also another largely positive week for Ben (not everyone agrees). As discussed in our retrospective of Ben’s journey, the show followed its previous treatment of qualified positivity, and there was plenty in a highly effective second VT which suggested the show building a feelgood narrative about Ben as a potential winner: we got to emotionally invest in the future of his family, portrayed as relying on his success (cue Ben crying); and he was the only one shown visiting the Together for Short Lives disabled children’s charity which will benefit from sales of the winner’s single (cue Ben crying). He continued with the tears after his pimp slot rendition of ‘Hallelujah’.

Against that, a 50% slice of the vote at the final four stage would be unprecedented since tallies were released in 2008. Given the hype around Fleur’s second performance and it hurtling to the top of the iTunes chart, it’s a bold though not impossible call to be willing to accept the Star leak; if you don’t accept it, you’re crediting insiders with a bluff or suggesting it’s specious journalism. You pays your money… We won’t know for sure until after Sunday’s climax, when the week-by-week public vote details are released.

Punters traditionally wait for the YouGov poll, published by The Sun on the eve of the final, as the only X Factor poll conducted by a professional polling organisation. But while the Sun had a poll this morning, it seemed to be the Sun’s own work rather than YouGov’s. It put Fleur ahead on 38%, with Ben on 24% and Andrea 15%. The article explained these results were in response to the question “who do you think will be crowned champion” rather than who do you want to win, which isn’t ideal at all for predicting how the votes will go.

In Fleur’s favour, we can be confident producers will continue to promote her heavily after the success of last week’s ‘Uptown Funk’, which she will reprise this weekend against Ben’s more low-key if solid ‘Man In The Mirror’. It will be interesting to see if producers are more careful after the Fleur bus dominated the end of Sunday’s show (see our retrospective on Fleur’s journey) in a way which even ordinary viewers noted as indicating favouritism.

The new song she will showcase tonight is the rap-heavy ‘Can’t Hold Us’ by Macklemore & Lewis. This is not your typical X Factor final song but then neither is Ben’s ‘Demons’, and both songs should suit their respective styles. It’s also worth bearing in mind this time last week we were questioning the wisdom of ‘Uptown Funk’.

I haven’t mentioned our favourite Italian yet. Andrea’s new song is ‘Something Good’ by Nina Simone, ‘Earth Song’ is his planned reprise and he’s the odd one out in the winner’s song choices, hoping to revert to bootcamp triumph ‘I Didn’t Know My Own Strength’, as opposed to NewRepublic’s ‘Something I Need’ for the other two.

This feels like a clue that producers are hoping to end Andrea’s journey tonight. The ambiguous coverage has continued – in The Sun today, a “Boring Andrea” headline for an article in which Simon suggests the Italian is too predictable. I’ve seen enough obvious deramping throughout the series to think that producers will try to finish the job tonight, leaving a more suspenseful final two without a singoff appearance between them.

I’ll be looking for eating references related to Andrea tonight (a theme we explored in our retrospective on Andrea’s journey), and the kind of off-putting staging in the first song that did Nicholas McDonald, Jahmene Douglas, Amelia Lily and Marcus Collins few favours in recent finals. Ben may end up with something similar. That will be one of the early signals; obviously we’ll get running order too – I’d be surprised if Ben appears after Fleur. Do bear in mind that producers have occasionally been willing to put the eventual Saturday departee on last, such as Amelia Lily and Luke Friend, so that the Sunday pimp slot reverts to The Chosen One. Don’t be too surprised to see Andrea there, though Fleur is surely odds-on favourite in this respect.

Otherwise, I’ll be looking out for something more nebulous in the tone of the show – and judges’ comments in particular – about Ben and Fleur. It will be a positive for Ben if the narrative of someone deserving and looking to help others continues, because it suggests creating a feelgood winner in the short-term even if his commerical potential is more limited. Ben backers will be hoping that Fleur’s narrative is about her post-show commerical potential, at the expense of talking about her chances of winning this.

Conversely, positive signals for Fleur backers will be the kind of table-thumping “We can do this!” employed by Tulisa in favour of Little Mix in 2011. That would suggest it’s possible. Any attempt to qualify Ben’s performances, as Mel and occasionally Cheryl have done during the earlier live shows, would also give hope to Fleur fans.

I will be weighing up my Ben and Fleur positions during the show based on these kinds of signals. Before the show, our final 1-2-3 prediction has to address what we think of the Daily Star leak. At the risk of being bluffed – which certainly cannot be discounted – there is a strong record of past results showing their spoilers to be accurate, and that is reflected in the Sofabet prediction:

1. Ben 2. Fleur 3. Andrea

Do let us know your continuing thoughts below. We know things are reaching a head, but we’d appreciate it if the debate is as constructive as possible.

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