Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 800 - 819)


23 NOVEMBER 2005Mr Ferdie MacanFhailigh, Mr Jim Millar, Aoda«n Mac Póilin and Mr John MacIntyre

  Q800  Chairman: If I were the BBC or if I were the Chief Secretary to the Treasury or something like that, what would you say about demand? Is there a demand for this to take place? Obviously you feel strongly on it, but what is the objective evidence of demand?

  Mr MacanFhailigh: We have the census figures; we also have in Irish-medium education at the minute just in excess of 4,000 kids in Northern Ireland in Irish-medium education. The Council for the Promotion of Irish-medium Education, if they meet their strategic objectives by 2008, there will be somewhere in the region of 10,000 kids involved in Irish-medium education. It is a burgeoning sector; it is a growing sector. From when the question was first put in 1991 on the census regarding the Irish language the numbers have grown. The Irish speaking population, whom we are here to represent, feel that the service provided on BBC television is non-existent, practically—five hours annually. The service for the schools sector, Irish in Irish-medium education is part of the core curriculum. There is a provision for the English-medium sector in Bitesize, for Irish at GCSE. This is the only place where Irish is studied for GCSE; they have provided that provision. But in terms of the Irish speaking population here—and let us not forget that in England, Scotland and Wales there are also a large number of Irish speakers from the republic of Ireland, who have emigrated, who are there, and that those people also deserve a service to be provided by the BBC.

  Mr Mac Póilin: Could I add to that that the only firm figures we have are the responses to the Ofcom 3 consultation? There are more responses on the Irish language from here than on all the rest of the issues that were raised. I think it was something like 53 per cent of the responses related to the Irish language. I am not just talking about myself and Ferdie's commitment to this, this is the only objective figure we have, and the level of the response to the consultation on the Renewal of the BBC Charter has been very, very high, and we can pull out those figures for you.

  Q801  Chairman: Yes, we would be interested. Just tell us about what your first feelings are as far as Ulster-Scots is concerned.

  Mr MacIntyre: I did circulate that statement.

  Q802  Chairman: You did.

  Mr MacIntyre: So we have that and I will refer to it. In 2005 there will be 10 and a half hours of broadcasting Ulster-Scots, and it will be mostly on the radio. I do not know what the TV is, it might be one hour, it might be two hours, but that is all it is. It comes on an occasional basis, people do not know when it is going to come; it comes for maybe four weeks and then it stops and then another series runs later on. We feel that there has to be a minimum level of provision and we would say that a programme time has to be raised, and we would put 30 minutes as a reasonable programme length, and that has to be regular.

  Q803  Chairman: Before you go into what it is that you actually want in detail, what is the evidence of demand?

  Mr MacIntyre: In the paper that I did give you the evidence we have is that The Nicht o Ulster-Scots programming there was the third highest popular programme that year; it came third after a Celtic v Rangers match and after a Country Times programme. The figures for the other programmes we know were high but those figures are not in the public domain so we do not know exactly what they are, and the BBC could supply those figures. The feedback we are getting is that the viewing figures are high and the feedback we get in the community is that we know a lot of people watch it and they tell us how much they enjoyed it. So we get that sort of analytical feedback as well. Some of us who have been active with Ulster-Scots have appeared on some of these programmes and you always have people coming up and talking to you about them. Even a programme that I appeared on three years, I still have people tapping me on the shoulder and talking to me about it. So there is an audience there for it.

  Mr Millar: I think one of the significant difficulties with regard to making an assessment of how much programming should be available on the BBC is the assessment of the level of Ulster-Scots speakers within Northern Ireland and within the nine counties of Ulster generally. So one of the big difficulties, I think, is the census. Whenever you ask Ferdie and Aoda«n those questions about how they would justify it, they both go back to the census and say, "This is the census that tells us exactly how many speakers there are." I think there is a real need for us to establish the actual extent to which there is a significant interest and enthusiasm for Ulster-Scots. People like John and myself are convinced that there is a significant level of enthusiasm. One of the difficulties with Ulster-Scots is that it is so close to English and some people who are fluent speakers, who are native Ulster-Scots speakers—and you, sir, probably will recognise this sentiment—some people do not regard themselves even as Ulster-Scots speakers because they think they are speaking bad English, and all of that information that is contained in their heads is because of the way that the educational system has used this. So whilst John might say that there are 34,000 or 35,000 Ulster-Scots speakers in Northern Ireland, that figure could be grossly underestimated and it could be ten-fold as much figures on the actual Ulster-Scots speakers. In terms of the BBC, I think there is a great issue about confidence for people who are speakers, to use Ulster-Scots because it has been so undervalued. I think that the role that the BBC has to play in that is in terms of allowing people the opportunity to see that there is a valued linguistic tradition within this country. John is quite right to indicate that there is 10 hours of language on BBC radio—and that is in stark comparison to over 240 hours for Irish language. We do not expect that both languages, because they are at different levels of development, should have the same type of commitment from the BBC, but we expect that as time goes on the gap between Irish and Ulster-Scots should begin to close. But I think in fact the reality is that the gap is increasingly becoming larger, and that would be of some concern. There is a background in the BBC in terms of Ulster-Scots programming, but clearly there is no long-term joined-up strategy in the way in which the Ulster-Scots programmes are developed. Ten hours of language, there was another 19 hours of programming that could be linked to some form of Ulster-Scots culture, whether it was A Touch of Tartan or Pipes and Drums, or whatever, but all of those programmes are organised by different producers and it shows that it is a separate set of individuals within the BBC who are dealing with those issues. What we would like to see would be some systematic, some rigorous way of organising the development of Ulster-Scots programmes within Northern Ireland to reflect the growing enthusiasm and interest that John has already highlighted for Ulster-Scots.

  Q804  Chairman: Has it ever been better than it is now? Have the television and radio ever covered Ulster-Scots better than they do now?

  Mr Millar: I think whenever we look at the level of provision it is virtually zero, and that has to be under all the legislation. Aoda«n talked about the European Charter and Ulster-Scots is recognised within the European Charter and it is recognised within the Good Friday Agreement.

  Q805  Chairman: Yes, but if you go back to 1990 would it have been any different?

  Mr Millar: No.

  Q806  Lord Peston: Just going back to the adequacy of the provision at the moment. I did not ask these questions this morning because they did not occur to me until hearing this morning's evidence, but two aspects of provision which are not exactly programmed occurred to me whilst I was thinking about this morning. Is any bit of the Radio Times published in Northern Ireland in Irish?

  Mr Mac Póilin: The titles of the programmes, if they are in Irish.

  Q807  Lord Peston: But there is no Irish version or even sub-version of the Radio Times?

  Mr Mac Póilin: It would not bother me what language they are published in.

  Q808  Lord Peston: It would not? You would like programmes in Irish but you do not care whether the listings are in Irish?

  Mr Mac Póilin: No, I do not care.

  Q809  Lord Peston: Would you therefore take the same view about Teletext? Again, when I was flicking through Teletext I could not see any Teletext in our hotel. Is there a Teletex in Irish?

  Mr MacanFhailigh: No. The only thing that is available in those terms in Irish is on the website. BBC have Bitesize revision for GCSE and they have produced a GCSE Irish in that. In terms of Teletex, Radio Times, nothing. Again, as Aoda«n said, in terms of what language the TV, the Radio Times is published in, I do not care.

  Q810  Lord Peston: No, but you do care about education and promoting the language. I am a devotee of Teletext, I would rather watch Teletext than any of the news programmes because it gives me all I want; it just tells me the simple news and that is good enough for me, and I do not want any comment. But if I were trying to promote the Irish language I would very much want Teletext to be in Irish because it is an ideal form; it is easy to understand and it would help the younger people in particular to get used to the language. But that does not bother you?

  Mr MacanFhailigh: I would not object to it, but I would not see it as a priority.

  Lord Maxton: Do RTÉ run a Teletext, or TG4? I hear from Mr O Ciardha that young people are not great users of Teletext.

  Q811  Lord Peston: I did not realise it was an old person's thing, I must drop it immediately!

  Mr Mac Póilin: Could I pick up on a point arising from what Jim said earlier, about losing it, and support what he is saying? The BBC can do much more Ulster-Scots material with the culture and linguistically without the displacement element that will happen with Irish. I have been arguing for a long, long time that Ulster-Scots should be in the mainstream within BBC Northern Ireland because it is accessible to most of the population here. Most people who are brought up here have a latent understanding of Ulster-Scots; there is a fair degree of intensity. Most Ulster-Scots people I will understand and I would like to see a lot more of them on the TV and I would like to see it mainstream, and it should happen. Irish is different in that the language is so different from English that it requires a different genre, but I would totally support what Jim is saying about this very important thread of our culture being seen in the most important medium.

  Q812  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: It is interesting what you have said because I wanted to ask that of Mr Millar. When you were talking about the Ulster-Scots programmes I was wondering whether it was as much about culture as language. Is it certain events?

  Mr Millar: I think there is a difficulty in as much as whenever BBC programmers say, "We have presented some Ulster-Scots programmes", so the definition of what is an Ulster-Scots programme therefore becomes important. What we are saying is that strictly in terms of language issues I think it is important that we recognise there are 10 and a half hours which represents 20 half-hour programmes on BBC Radio dedicated solely to people speaking Ulster-Scots and talking about Ulster-Scots issues, and that is the extent of it. I think to a certain extent there may be some massaging of figures whenever we talk about some of the other programmes. That might be a small part of the cultural element towards linking language with Ulster-Scots culture, but the hard reality of life here is that we have 10 hours of Ulster-Scots language. To pick up again on the point that Aoda«n made, one of the great things about Ulster-Scots is that it offers an opportunity for people from both sides of our religious divide in Northern Ireland to engage in their own personal linguistic development, and I think that is sometimes an issue that is understated in this country. So I am not necessarily saying that because someone is an Ulster-Scots speaker de facto they are Protestant or a Unionist or whatever label you wish to ascribe to that. It covers the whole spectrum of life. It is mainly a rural condition in terms of people coming from particular backgrounds who have an understanding of the use of Ulster-Scots.

  Q813  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: But are you suggesting that some programming is called Ulster-Scots programming, which is not in your stance?

  Mr Millar: Yes, absolutely, that is exactly what I am saying, that there is some Ulster-Scots programming which is defined as Ulster-Scots but really it is not. What we are talking about here is language programmes and language programmes for me, by definition, are Ulster-Scots speakers talking about Ulster-Scots issues.

  Mr MacIntyre: Could I come in with a comment there? Some of the programming is what we call the animal in the cage syndrome. It is where a producer or production staff from outside the Ulster-Scots community makes a programme on Ulster-Scots or about it, but it is actually made by the outside community. We have compared it to putting an animal in a cage and poking it with a stick to see what it will do. What we really need are people from the Ulster-Scots community, trained in production, who can then make programmes for the community. I am not saying we should not use outside producers but there needs to be a balance here, and that balance does not exist at the moment.

  Q814  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: Is that something that you think is the responsibility of the BBC?

  Mr MacIntyre: The BBC are the people who transmit the material and commission it, so they are in a position to influence it.

  Q815  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: Moving on to the case of Gaelic, Ofcom suggested that there should be an enhanced relationship between the BBC and TG4 in order to encourage more time spent. Is that the way forward, do you think?

  Mr Mac Póilin: It is not the only way forward. There are certain elements in the service that can only be done by the BBC, for example the education service. There is also an element in that it is extremely important within this society that basically Irish broadcasting is not entirely the purview of a station that is broadcasting from another state, from a neighbouring friendly country, or state anyway.

  Q816  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: If we are talking co-productions?

  Mr Mac Póilin: The fact that the BBC has begun to broadcast in Irish—and it is only recently, previously it has broadcast in Welsh since the 1920s, and even before there was a BBC the BBC was doing it—that impact, of a major institution within the United Kingdom broadcasting on lines that were previously excluded, has made an enormous difference to the perception of that language in society. It has led to the normalisation, acceptance of that language in society, so it is very important for us that the BBC does things on its own for that reason. Also, because basically we are licence payers here as well and we deserve a service from our licence fee as opposed to somebody else's licence fee. I would welcome cooperation but I think that the BBC also needs to do things on its own in education and in general programming as well, just basically to show that Irish speakers are part of this society. It is a symbolic significance but it is extremely important. There are also elements and programmes and interests that the society here has—and I speak as a northerner—and we actually do not share all that much with the south. There are particularities here that people in the south might not be interested in. So TG Ceathair's priorities and broadcasting priorities may not necessarily—and I know they do their best, but they do not live here—recognise what we as a community need as a television broadcasting service.

  Q817  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: Of course we heard earlier that there was a great pool of talent in the south; there was no lack of people to make Gaelic programmes. Is that true in the north?

  Mr MacanFhailigh: In terms of the north television production is very young. The Irish Language Broadcast Fund has been set up by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, essentially to educate, train and grow what is a very, very young sector here in the north. There is, as you have said, a larger pool in the south, which the BBC could tap into. In terms of what Aoda«n was saying a minute ago about co-productions with TG Ceathair, yes, the BBC could do that, but just to emphasise the point that he made we are talking here about a normalisation of the language, and the BBC as a public sector broadcaster has a responsibility to the Irish speaking community, but it also has a responsibility to enable non-speakers of Irish to gain an insight and an understanding of the language and its attendant culture.

  Q818  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: Of course it would be broadcast by the BBC.

  Mr MacanFhailigh: Yes.

  Q819  Lord Maxton: But in Wales and in Scotland they have had ring fencing funding, particularly in Scotland, with Gaelic—in Eastern Wales it is a fair proportion of the population—not just from the BBC but also from STV. The new Scottish Parliament Executive has taken positive action to try and encourage it and have even made it now a second language in the sense that signing and whatnot is to be in Gaelic, and yet despite all that effort being made it is now below 60,000 people in Scotland who speak Gaelic. And the rest of us, if you like, are putting a large amount of money into preserving and keeping that 60,000 people's language for them. I think there are some Scots who begin to doubt whether that is the wisest course to take, and that it might be better to say, "It is up to you to preserve your language, rather than for the rest of us."

  Mr MacanFhailigh: In terms of numbers here in Northern Ireland, in the census in 1991 there were 143,000 and somewhat; in 2001 there were 167,000—it went up from 9 per cent to 10.3 per cent. So in terms of blunt numbers, if you like, here in Northern Ireland the numbers are growing. But I think that there is another element here, and that is an element of an understanding of a culture and of a way of life, if you want to call it that. I will go back to what you said earlier, the reference you made to taking speakers of Scots and good speakers of Burns Scots and recording them. The only thing I can say for that is—Latin. It is not a living language but it is there, it is recorded. What we have here are living, vibrant languages and if we lose those then we become poorer both linguistically and culturally. What we are seeking from the BBC is working towards the normalisation of languages. It is something that is happening all over the world; the globalisation, if you like, of English and Spanish and so on is being resisted, and I think it is very important that we take those minority languages and cherish them for what they are, because it is from those that we came.

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