Gaelic Language Broadcasting

Clause 4 – in the House of Commons at 10:47 pm on 4th May 1988.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Lennox-Boyd.]

Photo of Mrs Ray Michie Mrs Ray Michie , Argyll and Bute 11:06 pm, 4th May 1988

I very much welcome the opportunity to discuss in the House the need for a Gaelic broadcasting service, and I am delighted that it is the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton) who is to reply. It is rather late, and I am sure that he would prefer to be on the beautiful island of Tiree, in my constituency, where he must surely by now have been adopted as a true Tirisdeach.

In the next few months, the Government promise to publish a major White Paper on broadcasting policy. It is suggested that it will contain many changes in terms of franchises, subscriptions, new cable services and satellite broadcasting. At the same time, as we move towards 1992, discussions are taking place on European Commission directives on broadcasting.

The purpose of this debate is to raise one vital issue, which must not be overlooked as we move towards what is likely to be a more deregulated and market-orientated broadcasting system. It is an issue which raises questions of consumer choice and the responsibilities of public service broadcasting. I am talking about broadcasting in the Gaelic language—an issue of great importance to more than 80,000 Gaels living in Scotland; an issue in which the Government must have an interest and one which I very much hope will not be ignored in the Government's White Paper.

The main issues I wish to highlight relate to television, but it is worth recording that there has been some expansion of Gaelic on both radio and, to a lesser extent, television in recent years. We have seen the creation by the BBC of a structure for Gaelic radio service, Radio Nan Gaidheal, which broadcasts five to 27 hours a week, but only a quarter of that is heard in central and southern Scotland, so 26,000 Gaels in Strathclyde do not get a full service.

However, the situation in television is different, and although there has been a slight increase in programming in the past few years on both BBC and the independent companies, to put it mildly, Gaels are less than happy about television, for it is crucial to the prospects of the language. We all know that television is the most significant means of communication for both information and entertainment. I do not pretend that access to television can alone guarantee the future of the Gaelic language, but exclusion from television would slow down its recovery. The advance of new technology means that more and more people are able to receive four colour channels, although some of the more remote parts of my constituency still have considerable problems.

There is tremendous potential, but potential which is not yet being exploited fully by the production companies. The average weekly Gaelic television output from all channels is less than one and a half hours. That is almost entirely current affairs programmes—Crann Tara and Prosbaig—and children's programmes. There is no arts, no sport, no religion, no light entertainment, and precious few documentaries. Gaelic programming is ad hoc and unco-ordinated. It is that situation which has led to Gaels calling for a Gaelic broadcasting service. We live in an English-centred culture with endless hours of broadcasting in English. Particularly for those Gaels whose mother tongue is Gaelic, there is no choice.

What a difference it would make, for example, to have many more programmes on the Gaelic part of our literary heritage—to become familiar with the works of such great Gaelic poets as Alexander MacDonald and Duncan Ban Maclntyre, to say nothing of the contemporary poet, Sorley MacLean, known in Gaeldom for his scholarly essays and poetry that has won him wide recognition as a great poet meriting international fame. His poems have been translated into Chinese, as well as most of the European languages. They have also been translated into English but I do not think they know much about him down here. People like him give the lie to any suggestion that we in Scotland are parochial and inward looking.

Previous Government reviews, in particular the Annan committee and the Peacock committee on the future financing of the BBC, have paid careful attention to the question of a Gaelic broadcasting service. The Peacock committee suggested: because of the anomaly by which the Scottish TV companies contribute more to maintaining the Welsh Fourth Channel than they spend on Gaelic television programmes in Scotland, a partial adjustment of their contribution to Wales should be considered". In its recent evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee, the Home Office recognised that the public service obligations of broadcasters included the notion that a suitable proportion of material should be calculated to appeal specially to the tastes and outlook of the persons served by the station including in languages other than English". At a conference in 1985, the right hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger), when Secretary of State for Scotland, said: I quite accept that we want to keep on pressing for as much more of the air for those in the Gaelic speaking areas as we can". In this House, there has been all-party support for the promotion of broadcasting in Gaelic. Three Bills were introduced in 1981, which called for the creation of a Gaelic broadcasting committee, consisting of representatives of the BBC and IBA, to co-ordinate and develop Gaelic television and radio; to oversee the scheduling of programmes in Gaelic; to comment and give guidance on the amount and balance of Gaelic broadcasting; to monitor the audience for Gaelic programmes; and to report to and advise the Secretary of State for Scotland.

I think that it is important to be clear what we are asking for. It is principally a framework for the development of Gaelic broadcasting, to allow better co-ordination of programme production and output, a commitment to a wider range of programmes, and more finance directed to the service provided. Currently Gaelic programmes appears to be ad hoc and seems to be seen in some quarters as an add-on extra.

An adequate service should extend to a wide range of programmes with regular time slots for specific programmes; they should not be shown in the middle of the night after all sane people have gone to bed. That happens all too often at the moment. There must be some commitment to real investment in the programmes.

Gaels look with some envy at the £3 million that annually leaves Scotland to fund the Welsh language channel S4C. I hasten to add that we do not object to that channel and we congratulate them on it. I hope that an extension of the levy principle to fund Gaelic programmes is something that the Government will consider when reflecting upon the funding of Channel 4.

Realistically, Gaels may not necessarily be looking for a separate channel like the Welsh. The proportion of Welsh speakers in Wales to Gaels in Scotland is significantly higher. The situations are different. But Gaels expect the Government to persuade the broadcasting companies of their public service obligations to Gaelic speakers. Tonight I hope that the Minister will be able to give me an assurance that this issue will be considered in the White Paper. I understand that that document is to be a broad-brush document, but the rights of minorities, the principle of consumer choice, and the concept of public service broadcasting are broad-brush issues that relate directly to the provision of a Gaelic broadcasting service.

What we are asking for is a commitment to the creation of a structure that allows Gaels an input to the provision of a co-ordination service. Co-ordination between the broadcasting companies, the Home Office and the Scottish Office is the starting point. Up to now the Home Office position has been that, if Gaels are not pressing for a separate channel, they can be accommodated within existing broadcasting arrangements—the only issue being how successful they are in persuading the broadcasting companies of that point of view. Experience has shown that that has not been good enough.

The broadcasters, on the whole, have been sympathetic in principle, but I suspect that, unless the Government act to create a structure which will make the broadcasters co-operate, there is little prospect of change in the immediate future.

There are therefore two specific areas to which the Government should give some consideration in their White Paper: the concept of an overall framework, and the levy by Scottish TV companies to S4C and Channel 4.

There is some concern that moves towards deregulation, and, in particular, auctioning independent franchises to the highest bidder, might mean that minority interests are squeezed out, because they are not generating sufficient advertising interest, and that there will be a subsequent decline in the quality of programmes. Will the Minister give an assurance that the White Paper will entail a commitment, on the grounds of public service obligations and consumer choice, that all parts of the community are served?

The survival of the Gaelic language remains on a knife-edge. To lose it would be a tragedy not just for Scotland, but I believe for the United Kingdom and Europe. It has had a chequered career, surviving the infamous clearances, being downgraded and sneered at as the language of the ghillie. Children are forbidden to speak it in the school or the playground.

However, the long-drawn-out struggle to preserve and strengthen the language, culture and heritage goes on. Gaels are now responding with enterprise. For example, Bocsa-Beo—Living Box—which is Scotland's first independent Gaelic television company, was recently launched. There is a Gaelic video workshop called "New Vision". That shows that the Gaels are prepared to be enterprising.

Much work has been done by Comunn na Gaidhlig. It is at present drawing up a major policy document on a Gaelic broadcasting service. I hope that the Minister will be able to meet Comunn na Gaidhlig later this summer when the document is published.

I am glad to have had this opportunity to state again the need for keeping alive our language in Scotland and, in particular, the need for a Gaelic broadcasting service.

Photo of Mr Calum MacDonald Mr Calum MacDonald , Na h-Eileanan an Iar 11:18 pm, 4th May 1988

I thank the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) for allowing me a couple of minutes to support the sentiments that she has expressed.

I have three interests in the debate: first, as a native Gaelic speaker; secondly, a constituency interest; and, thirdly, the fact that the private Member's Bill to which the hon. Lady referred was introduced by my predecessor as Member of Parliament for Western Isles, Donald Stewart. That Bill contained a reference to the need to establish a Gaelic broadcasting committee to create a coherent policy framework for Gaelic broadcasting. The need for such a policy is even greater now than it was in 1981 when that Bill was introduced.

The hon. Lady said that Gaelic is on a knife-edge. But Gaelic is stronger than it was in 1981. Indeed, it is stronger than it has been for the past 100 years. Instead of a decline in interest, there seems to be an upsurge in interest and enthusiasm for the language, not just in my constituency but throughout Scotland. It is a fair reflection of that interest that the subject of Gaelic is no longer the sole preserve of the hon. Member for Western Isles, because Members representing other parts of Scotland are introducing such debates. That is a welcome and significant development.

The hon. Lady said that the main problem with Gaelic broadcasting is that, despite great advances, it remains ad hoc and fragmented. Sometimes programmes duplicate each other. That tends to hinder the development of Gaelic broadcasting. We must acknowledge the excellent work of those who pioneered Gaelic broadcasting, but, as the hon. Lady said, the time is right, with all the changes that are taking place in the broadcasting world in general, for a new look at the provision for Gaelic.

I urge the Minister to make a commitment and to say that the Government are considering a coherent policy framework for Gaelic. I hope that he will also give a commitment to meet representatives of the Gaelic language to discuss the need for a Gaelic broadcasting service.

Photo of Mr Timothy Renton Mr Timothy Renton , Mid Sussex 11:21 pm, 4th May 1988

I thank the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) for introducing this interesting and important debate on the provision for broadcasting in the Gaelic language, and I also noted with great interest the remarks of the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald).

I do not pretend to be an expert on Gaelic matters, and I would hesitate to say "Tirisdeach" with the flair and speed of the hon. Lady, but with a wife who comes from Ayrshire and having spent many holidays in Tiree in the hon. Lady's constituency, I have some small knowledge of the problems to which she referred. On Tiree, the older generations seem to prefer to speak Gaelic rather than English—at least among themselves—but there is not the same incentive or wish to speak Gaelic among the younger generation. That is why I was especially pleased the other day to hear my hon. Friend the Minister responsible for education in Scotland announce that the specific grant for Gaelic education will be increased from "£300,000 this year to £500,000 in 1988–89.

The hon. Lady was right to say that Gaelic is an important part of Scottish heritage and culture and that, in turn, broadcasting has an important role to play in the preservation of Gaelic as a living language and in sustaining the distinctive culture upon which it is based. But I must remind the hon. Lady that Parliament has placed statutory obligations on the broadcasters in relation to minority interests. Our role is to ensure that the broadcasters meet the needs of all parts of the community, but it is the responsibility of the BBC and the IBA to consider the emphasis that should be given to Gaelic broadcasting, or to any other programme service. Decisions on the allocation of resources to services are matters in which the Government do not intervene.

The hon. Lady was more pessimistic about the Gaelic language than I am, and I was interested to hear that the hon. Member for Western Isles also thought that.

Certainly, Gaelic broadcasting on BBC Scotland television and radio aims to sustain and encourage the use of the Gaelic language as a means of transacting everyday life, of understanding and debating the widest range of public affairs—nationally and internationally —and of promoting contemporary Gaelic culture in the various communities of Scotland.

To achieve that, over 50 hours of television were broadcast in Gaelic last year by the BBC. Grampian Television plans to broadcast just over 40 hours of Gaelic programmes over the next 12 months and Scottish Television transmits about 26 hours of Gaelic programmes. Radio broadcasters already make real efforts to meet demand for Gaelic programmes. The BBC has been running Radio Nan Gaidheal for over three years as a distinctive radio service for the Gaelic-speaking population and, as the hon. Lady will know, it has steadily increased its hours of broadcasting and range of service.

I am sure that the BBC will take note particularly of the comments by the hon. Lady that there are 26,000 Gaels in the south of Scotland who cannot hear some of the radio programmes broadcast in Gaelic by the BBC, as well as her comments about the ad hoc and unco-ordinated nature of programmes.

I do not think that Gaelic as a language and culture is generally ignored by the broadcasting world, hut. if it is felt that not enough attention is paid to it. those concerned, led perhaps by the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for the Western Isles, should seek to persuade the broadcasting authorities that greater coverage is needed.

The broadcasting authorities provide the service and, in fulfilling that function, they have to be sensitive to the various strands of public opinion. It must be recognised that, for any service to be provided, there must he a demand for that service. I am not persuaded, at this stage at least, that there is a demand for a Gaelic television service in the way that justified the creation of the Welsh fourth channel.

I understand the hon. Lady's concern about the subscription of about £3 million each year provided by the Scottish independent television companies towards the cost of the Welsh fourth channel, but I pointed out that all the ITV companies throughout the United Kingdom contribute in that way as part of the total package for establishing a Welsh language broadcast service and, indeed, of the fourth channel as a whole. Those contributions are taken into account in determining the ITV levy rates, and it is difficult to seek to change just one piece of the jigsaw in isolation.

When the Welsh fourth channel was reviewed in 1985, the ITV Association told the Government that the ITV companies supported in principle the continuation of the existing arrangements, and we concluded that the arrangements should continue. I do not think that it would be right at this stage to contemplate unpicking the package

I wish to turn to future arrangements and the question of future opportunities for broadcasting through the introduction of new technology. Some of those might be in the form of new television services. Studies have been carried out into the feasibility of providing new services in the UHF and VHF bands. We have also been examining a technology new to this country—the microwave video distribution systems. That technology uses microwave frequencies to transmit television and sound channels from terrestrial transmitters to aerials on individual buildings. We have to make our own decisions about the new services and what form they might take, but new local specialist services are clearly a possibility.

We also envisage considerable scope for more Gaelic on radio in the future, if that is what listeners want. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, in his announcement of 19 January, confirmed that we propose to legislate on the basis of proposals put forward last year in our Green Paper. We shall invite Parliament to agree to establish a new radio authority which will be responsible for licensing a wide range of local services with the general aim of enhancing the range of choice for listeners. It will therefore be open to those interested in providing a Gaelic service, or at least one with a strong Gaelic flavour, to apply to the authority.

The stations that are then set up will not, as now, have to operate within all the constraints of the Broadcasting Act 1981. There will be no arbitrary limit on the number or range of stations that seek to address a Gaelic audience. The Radio Authority will take its licensing decisions on the basis of a number of considerations, and these will include the availability of frequencies, local demand for services and the extent to which they widen consumer choice.

I must suggest to the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Western Isles that advocates of Gaelic broadcasting may want now to make a start on getting their proposals worked out, thinking about business plans and establishing support within the community.

I hope that my reply is not too disappointing to the hon. Lady. She said that she is a realist and that she is not seeking a new television channel devoted exclusively to Gaelic. I agree with her realism. Despite the importance of preserving the language as part of the cultural heritage of Scotland, we do not feel that the level of demand for Gaelic broadcasting would justify the creation of a new television station in Scotland at this stage. However, there are major new opportunities for broadcasting both in television and on radio immediately ahead. I strongly urge the various interested parties in Scotland to consider those opportunities and to take advantage of the exciting developments.

At great risk, I say tapadh leibh to the hon. Lady. I thank her for raising this important subject and for the thoughtful and moderate way in which she has addressed the House this evening.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Twelve o'clock.