Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 820 - 839)


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

  Q820  Lord Peston: You have covered almost everything I was going to ask, but since you have mentioned globalisation, another thought I had in mind is that you are not the only part of the world where people are trying to preserve a language as part of preserving their culture—the Basques are ones that immediately come to mind. Do you have contact with people like the Basques and others? Do they have, for example, their own television station?

  Mr MacanFhailigh: We have, facilitated by the Bwrdd y laith Gymraeg, the Welsh Language Board, set up a network of official language boards including ourselves and Foras Na Gaeilge, Bord na Gaeilge in Scotland, Bwrdd y laith Gymraeg in Wales, the Basques, the Galicians, the Catalans, the Friesians—

  Q821  Lord Peston: They were the other ones I was going to ask you about.

  Mr MacanFhailigh: The Swedish Finns, so we have a network of language boards which were set up last year, 2004.

  Q822  Lord Peston: My question was not really that—that is the background—but what about their access when it comes to television and radio? I am interested in the Basques because of football and all that, but is there a great deal of Basque language television, as far as you know, and do they press for it?

  Mr Mac Póilin: Basically, how long do you have? I could keep you here until this time tomorrow and we would not have finished that particular subject. The services for different minority language communities even within the European context are so various that some do better than us and some do much worse than us. That is the simple answer to that. I would like to come back to a deeper question that was raised here, which is the question of the value of minority language and their cultures within the society within the United Kingdom. It is a question of cultural ecology. The approach that I take to it is that there are civilisations within this state and within this society that have survived for the last 2000 years and they are in danger, they are weakening; they are weakening because of the enormous force of a more dominant language that is the majority language within the community. Any society that does not treasure its minorities, does not treasure the value of those civilisations, those very ancient civilisations—even if they are weak, you do not go round and count heads and say, "There are only 50,000 of you, we will not do anything else for you." The value of that diversity, the historic diversity within the community is of enormous importance, I think, and any civilised society that ignores it and lets its minorities die without making an effort to support them, should not be called a civilised society, it is as simple as that. What has been done for Gaelic, I would support; what has been done for Welsh I would support, and basically what we are saying is it should be done here as well.

  Mr MacanFhailigh: I would just like to make one point. What we are talking about here is a question of access, and if this was a question of disability access we would not be having this conversation that we are having today, and this is a question of access for those people.

  Q823  Chairman: And Ulster-Scots, everything that has been said, you would probably agree with?

  Mr MacIntyre: Absolutely, totally agree, and it is about human ecology. You have to realise that we as a race colonised every part of the earth up to the Poles—except the South Pole—and we have done that because we have been different, and here we are in a situation where we are actually trying to edit out the difference and that difference is what made us successful as a species, and we are actually undermining ourselves as a species by not respecting that difference and encouraging it. The other thing is that it is rather silly to believe that one language, whether it is English or Spanish, can contain the sum total of human knowledge. There is no one language that can contain the sum total of human knowledge; all languages can contribute to human knowledge. If you kill off one language you are killing off a part of that human knowledge. The other point I would like to make is, we are not talking big money here to do these things. For instance, on Ulster-Scots radio station all we actually need is for Ofcom to give us a licence because we have three business models that we could follow: one would be a commercial model, one would be maybe a community voluntary model accessing existing funding bodies. So even to give us that you would be sustaining difference. And it is about will; in many cases it not about resources, it is about will.

  Q824  Lord Maxton: Do you have your own website?

  Mr MacIntyre: Yes.

  Q825  Lord Maxton: Do you have voice radio on that?

  Mr MacIntyre: We are trying to set that up.

  Q826  Lord Maxton: That obviously is at least one way in which you can get to your communities.

  Mr Millar: I think the interesting thing about that is you have just highlighted the strength in radio, in as much as radio is about speaking and about listening. I take very much the points that both Aoda«n and Ferdie have made, and also John, about language development. I think the significant difference between Ulster-Scots and Irish is that we are in the position that maybe Irish was in 40 or 50 years ago, where Irish was seen as a lower status type of language. The role that the BBC can play with regard to supporting the sustainability of Ulster-Scots is incredibly important. If young people can tune into radio and they can hear this language that their parents speak, that they might have some notion of speaking also, and that is on radio, then that means such a significant amount to making the difference between the language sustaining or struggling through for the next number of decades.

  Q827  Lord Maxton: A separate radio is one thing, but having part of the normal radio programmes as part of using either of the languages in that, for what are minorities, is questionable, is it not? A separate one I can fully support.

  Mr MacIntyre: BBC Northern Ireland has to reflect the population it serves and the situation is that it is a minority but still quite a substantial minority who speak either Irish or Ulster-Scots, and it is not asking for a lot, but that they would get maybe a portion of broadcasting time. We are talking maybe an hour at the most a day out of nearly 24 hours' broadcasting time, and that these programmes are not inaccessible to the whole community. I do not speak Irish but one of the radio programmes I listen to is a music programme and the link is done in Irish, but it is the same as any other programme, it is popular music and I listen because the music selection is good. There is no reason why you could not do an Ulster-Scots programme where the links are done in Ulster-Scots.

  Q828  Chairman: We will come back to you in a moment, and I will come back to Lord Maxton as well because he has a number of last questions, but let me ask you one question which I think is quite interesting. There is a BBC survey that found that it was the younger people in Northern Ireland who are more positive about the Irish language programming than people over 35. Is that your experience?

  Mr MacanFhailigh: If we look at it in terms of the growth of Irish-medium education and the growth of the popularity of Irish as a subject in mainstream education, for want of a better term, the growth of Irish in the last 20 years has been phenomenal. So the majority of Irish speakers in the north are younger people—and I would like to class myself as one of those! But that is the age of the majority of the population who speak Irish.

  Q829  Chairman: Is that the same with you? Is it younger people who are showing the most interest?

  Mr MacIntyre: The honest answer is we do not know; there is no census information.

  Q830  Lord Maxton: You do not gather any yourselves?

  Mr MacIntyre: We have very limited resources; we do not have the funding.

  Q831  Chairman: What is your impression?

  Mr Millar: One of the threatening issues is that there is some recent research being conducted at the University of Ulster at Londonderry and primary results about the use of Ulster-Scots would indicate that the age range of the people who are using Ulster-Scots is in the upper age range. That, if you like, brings a significant problem to the language because if Ulster-Scots is being used by people in the older age range then that, if you like, accelerates the difficulty that is facing Ulster-Scots. If you have a language that lives only through people who are in their 50s or their 60s then that is a very worrying sign.

  Q832  Chairman: So you are in a rather different position in fact to those speaking the Irish language?

  Mr MacIntyre: Part of the issue about Ulster-Scots is that because the census figures are not available this is purely speculation.

  Q833  Chairman: It sounds as though it might be a more urgent issue, is another way of putting it.

  Mr MacIntyre: Yes, I would say it is an extremely urgent issue.

  Lord Maxton: I have to say I find that my sons who speak, as I say, Lanarkshire-Scots have probably three different oral languages: they have one at home with me, one at work and one in the pub at night, and they are almost different in what they say at different points. In one of them they will be fairly broad Lanarkshire and in the rest they may not be. We have covered the questions on dedicated services.

  Q834  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: Mr McIntyre, is it absolutely necessary with the future of digital switchover and lots and lots of new channels and so on that it is the BBC that supplies what you are asking for?

  Mr MacIntyre: My answer to that would be that we need our own dedicated channel; that we cannot depend on the BBC because if you are a BBC Radio Ulster English language channel all they can do is to give some sort of token provision to reflect the diversity of our society; they cannot give us the sort of broadcasting that we need. We need our own dedicated channel.

  Q835  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: Would you be happy with that? Would that be sufficient? You are not fighting for a BBC voice, necessarily?

  Mr MacIntyre: We have nothing at the moment. If we do not have the BBC we just have nothing.

  Mr Millar: I wonder if I could make a contribution? Whilst I accept in the main what John is saying I think we have to recognise that the BBC is the single biggest broadcaster in this country and in Northern Ireland and also in the UK, and I think the validation of the language would be seen much more significantly from contributions from the BBC, and I think whilst it is right and proper that in the fullness of time we seek an opportunity for our own language broadcasting medium I think that the BBC has a responsibility to its licence fee payers, but also I think it has a significant role to play in making sure that that broadcast is available throughout the whole of Northern Ireland.

  Q836  Chairman: Let us sum up on this. Basically what you are both saying is that you are underrepresented on the BBC quite substantially and that an urgent way forward is for that representation to be increased. In fact is it fair to say that you cannot really think of any other single measure which would do more to help?

  Mr Millar: Absolutely, and radio in particular and the way that people develop their language skills is through listening, speaking, reading and writing. So the very start of that learning process is listening and that is what radio provides.

  Q837  Chairman: That would be your view as well?

  Mr MacanFhailigh: In terms that we have 250 hours of radio at present annually, and given the level of development that we are at, we are working towards a normalisation of the language. As a public service broadcaster—and I said it before—the 10.3 per cent of the population is deserving of a better service than is being provided. But the BBC also has a responsibility to non-speakers, as I said earlier, to enable them to gain an understanding of the language and of the attendant culture. We are talking here about the normalisation of a language, and what Lord Maxton referred to earlier on, and Lady Bonham-Carter, to dedicated channels. We are talking here about normalisation of languages and acceptance of languages, especially in terms of Northern Ireland where there are perceptions—let us be honest about this—of languages. The perceptions that people have of languages comes from the baggage that they have in their heads regarding those languages, that is where it comes from. Language is merely a series of grunts which we have learned to interpret in one way, and it is when the perceptions of those languages are put on them that languages start to have different meanings for people. So in terms of the normalisation of languages here I think that the BBC has a responsibility as well to provide an enhanced service for the Irish language.

  Q838  Chairman: You have all put your case extremely well, extremely thoroughly. Is there anything that we have missed out in any way, any point that you feel you have not sufficiently emphasised? I think we have the message.

  Mr MacIntyre: I think the one issue that maybe was not raised was broadcasting and the European Charter, how you would align the obligations of the Charter with broadcasting, and I would broadly make the point that we need to try and align those obligations.

  Mr Mac Póilin: We have said it before and you have probably picked it up, but I would not mind saying it again, that the only way that what we are proposing can be protected within the structure is actually for it to be written into the White Paper.

  Q839  Lord Maxton: You did say that right at the beginning.

  Mr Mac Póilin: I did, and I just say it again!

  Chairman: A good journalistic thing is to start your article and finish it with the same point. Thank you very much indeed, we are very grateful for your evidence; we have learnt a lot in a short space of time. If we have any points perhaps we could write to you with them. Thank you very much for coming this afternoon.

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