Gaelic Language Broadcasting

Part of Clause 4 – in the House of Commons at 11:06 pm on 4th May 1988.

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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.