Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by the ULTACH Trust


  1.1  ULTACH Trust welcomes the opportunity to present evidence to the Select Committee on the BBC Review. Like the majority of respondents to Ofcom's review of public service broadcasting (PSB), the Trust recognises and values the BBC's immense contribution to the broadcasting culture of the UK. We agree that the maintenance of PSB in the digital age is becoming an increasingly important issue, and that the licence fee is the appropriate mechanism to ensure high-quality services that are not commercially viable. This role is particularly important in the context of an ethos that values the principle of cultural diversity in our society.

  1.2  We were therefore surprised when the Government's Green Paper on Charter Review failed to mention the Irish language, although it made significant recommendations with relation to the other Celtic languages of the United Kingdom, Welsh and Scottish Gaelic. This surprise was compounded by the fact that the provision of an enhanced PSB Irish language service is supported by, among others, Ofcom, the Broadcasting Council of Northern Ireland, the Belfast Agreement, the Cross-Border Language Body, the European Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages, and the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.

  1.3 We would ask the House of Lords Committee to address this shortcoming, which is analysed in more detail in the following pages.


  2.1  In the context of PSB in Northern Ireland, we note the emphasis by both Ofcom and Government on the requirement to reflect the UK, its nations, regions and communities, and on the BBC's role in strengthening cultural identity and raising awareness of "different cultures and alternative viewpoints, through programmes that reflect the lives of other people and other communities within the UK".

  2.2  The BBC is the key to PSB provision in the UK in the future. As the Green Paper itself points out, as other major broadcasters adopt an increasingly commercial response to the world of digital broadcasting, the BBC may in fact develop a "near-monopoly" as a PSB provider. The BBC's PSB role is particularly important in the nations, and this role becomes more important still in relation to the ancient languages which survive in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. These principles have been recognised in the Green Paper in a paragraph whose sentiment proved too much for its syntax:

    Devolution has changed the political fabric of the UK, and the BBC should continue to provide a larger amount of dedicated programming in and for each of the devolved nations (Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales). That should include provision in indigenous minority languages across a range of platforms—the internet has particular value in supporting those languages. More detail on Welsh and [Scottish] Gaelic is set out below. (page 41)

  2.3  Again, while the Green Paper argues that "broadcasting in indigenous languages is an essential element of the United Kingdom public service broadcasting mix" (page 48), and that "Indigenous language broadcasting is an integral part of national television services" (page 98), it fails to mention one of these indigenous languages at all.


  3.1  We believe that one of the most critical issues in the PSB debate is the role of the licence fee in supporting indigenous language broadcasting. Ofcom recognises the BBC's past failures to support Irish language broadcasting, and proposes that the issue be addressed through the renewal of the BBC's Charter. We warmly support this recommendation:

    Historically, the BBC has spent less per head on serving its Irish-speaking audience than on the Gaelic and Welsh-speaking populations. We welcome its introduction of a regular factual strand in the Irish language, SRL, and would expect Charter Review to result in sufficient funding for BBC Northern Ireland to be able to continue and expand this commitment. (page 100, emphasis added)


  4.1  The following table, from research commissioned by the ULTACH Trust, clearly demonstrates the disparity in both service and funding.

2001 Census
knowledge of Welsh, Gaelic
and Irish
BBC television service 2001-02 (from Licence Fee
Spend per speaker

N Ireland

  Note: BBC Scotland is also supported by the Gaelic Broadcasting Fund, which provided an additional £3 million in 2001-02.


  5.1  The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 has the legal force of an international treaty. In the Agreement, the British Government committed itself to: "seek more effective ways to encourage and provide financial support for Irish language film and television production in Northern Ireland".

  5.2  The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages was ratified by the UK on 27 March 2001. Irish, along with Welsh and Scottish Gaelic, was included under Part III of the Charter, the higher level of provision. In Article 11, in the section on Media, the British Government made the following commitment to the Irish language in Northern Ireland:

    "to the extent that radio and television carry out a public service mission . . . [the Government undertakes] to make adequate provision so that broadcasters offer programmes in the regional or minority languages" [Paragraph 1a (iii)]

  5.3  An International Committee of Experts examined the performance of the UK in relation to the Charter and published its report in 2004. Their report, addressed to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, found "shortcomings in the services in Irish and Scottish Gaelic, particularly regarding television", and stated that:

    "The Committee of Experts considers the undertaking fulfilled in relation to radio but not currently fulfilled in relation to television" (page 53)

  5.4  The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe received the report, and on 24 March 2004, passed the following resolution (Recommendation RecChl(2004)1:

    "[The Committee of Ministers] recommends that the authorities of the United Kingdom take account of all the observations of the Committee of Experts, and, as a matter of priority . . . improve the public service television provision in Irish" (p.70)

  5.5  Foras na Gaeilge, the Irish language agency of the Cross-Border Language Body, an international statutory body with a remit to advise both governments on issues relating to language policy, has made a strong recommendation to Ofcom that the BBC's responsibilities to the Irish language be clearly defined:

    We believe that BBC NI does not give due recognition to the Irish language and has failed in its remit to provide an adequate service for the Irish language community. We believe that Ofcom has a major role to play in actively pursuing the realisation of these recommendations by pressing for enhanced provision for the Irish language in the form of dedicated programming supported by and as an obligation on the part of the BBC Charter.


  6.1  In Wales the responsibility of the BBC to Welsh language broadcasting is defined by statute. Currently, this involves making 500 hours of programming to be broadcast on S4C. In Scotland, the BBC's Gaelic service is protected by a ring-fenced portion of the licence fee income, supplemented by income from the Gaelic Broadcasting Service. Irish has no such protection in Northern Ireland. Irish language television programmes must compete for BBC resources within a general programme budget. In other words, an Irish language programme can be made only by displacing an element of the existing English-language service. This situation is most unsatisfactory to all concerned. Through the BBC's Charter Review process, the Broadcasting Council of Northern Ireland has made the following recommendation:

    the Broadcasting Council believes that . . . the Charter should provide a clearly defined and enabling context for the development of indigenous language programming by BBCNI, consistent with the BBC's existing/planned commitments to Welsh and Scots Gaelic output, and to include fully additional funding to facilitate the enhancement of programmes and services in this area. (Broadcasting Council for Northern Ireland, response to the Green Paper, Report to the Board of Governors of the BBC, April 2005, page 26))


  7.1  It is a matter of grave concern to us that the Green Paper does not reflect the recommendations on the BBC's responsibility for the Irish language in Northern Ireland made by Ofcom and the other bodies identified above. This concern is shared by all licence fee payers who speak Irish—many of whom have contacted both Ofcom and DCMS about the issue—as well as by a large number of non-speakers who believe in the principles of equity, linguistic diversity, the "ecology of public service broadcasting", and the special importance of indigenous minority languages to the cultural ecology of the UK.

  7.2  We believe that Government must demonstrate its commitment to safeguarding the cultural heritage of the indigenous Celtic languages in the UK by clearly defining the BBC's responsibilities to Irish in Northern Ireland in the reviewed Charter.

  7.3  When reviewing the BBC's responsibilities to the licence-paying public, we ask your Committee to consider the following points:

    —  The BBC's crucial role in safeguarding the cultural heritage of the Irish language;

    —  The BBC's clear public service broadcasting responsibility to provide a dedicated Irish language service for (a) Irish-speaking licence-fee payers of Northern Ireland; (b) Irish-speakers in other parts of the United Kingdom;

    —  The BBC's responsibility to enable non-speakers of Irish to gain an understanding of the Irish language and its attendant culture;

    —  The BBC's responsibility to enhance its television, internet and educational provision to a level that reflects its public broadcasting remit;

    —  The need to explore the BBC's potential to make a significant contribution towards the broadcasting service of TG4 (the Irish-language station broadcasting from the Republic of Ireland), based on the model of the BBC's relationship with the Welsh language channel, S4C.

29 April 2005

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