Wilson McLeod writes: The Gaelic digital service BBC Alba has been broadcasting for more than eighteen months now, but is still struggling to find its feet. In many ways, the situation of BBC Alba under-funded, long delayed and deliberately marginalised is emblematic of provision for Gaelic in Scotland: a series of half-hearted half-measures that come too late in the day.
The key problem with BBC Alba is simply that not enough people can receive it. At the moment, the service is only available via satellite or on-line using the BBCiPlayer. Plans to expand it to digital terrestrial and cable have been repeatedly delayed. Less than 40% of viewers use satellite, the remainder being divided between Freeview (now the dominant delivery platform), cable and the obsolescent analogue.
Blocking out almost two-thirds of the potential audience is obviously an absurd strategy for broadcasting in a language spoken by only a tiny minority of the population. How was this situation allowed to develop?
It’s a long story but it boils down to politics and money, as might be expected. Gaelic television grew rapidly in the 1990s following the Broadcasting Act of 1990 and the establishment of the Gaelic Television Fund. Over the years, though, this fund wasn’t increased in line with inflation, and its value steadily declined in real terms. Programming was scattered over BBC and commercial channels (Grampian and STV), but the commercial channels slowly lost whatever interest they had ever had in Gaelic, and pushed their Gaelic output to graveyard slots in the middle of the night.
By the end of the 1990s, with a New Labour government in power and the Irish-language channel TG4 up and running alongside the Welsh S4C, a dedicated Gaelic channel in Scotland seemed the logical next step, and a tortuous planning process began. The official Milne Report, published in 2000, recommended setting up a Gaelic channel that would broadcast six hours a day at an annual cost of £44 million. That figure duly terrified the horses in Westminster and St Andrew’s House and the next few years were spent trying to come up with an alternative and, crucially, much
Planning and negotiations for a Gaelic channel also got bogged down by the politics of devolution. Where was the new money going to come from Westminster or Holyrood? Broadcasting is a reserved matter controlled from London, but the actual funding of Gaelic broadcasting comes from Edinburgh. In the end, after years of fruitless discussion, Westminster remained steadfast in its refusal to make any meaningful additional financial contribution for a Gaelic channel one reason that the service as it eventually emerged, in the form of BBC Alba is so inadequately funded.
At the same time, the great technological transformation of broadcasting, including the move from analogue to digital television, was under way. S4C was set up in 1982 as the Welsh fourth channel, that is, the counterpart to Channel 4 in other parts of the UK. So too in Ireland: when it was launched, TG4 was just the fourth of a grand total of four channels that just appeared on every television set in Ireland. But by the early 2000s, the landscape had become hugely more diverse: scores of channels available on digital terrestrial, scores more on cable, and hundreds on satellite.
The financial and regulatory issues that accompanied these technological transformations were, if anything, even more complex, and it became clear that an independent Gaelic channel would simply not be viable given the resources the politicians were willing to make available. The eventual solution was a partnership between the Gaelic Media Service (now also known as MG ALBA) and the BBC, which had the benefit of building on the existing BBC Gaelic infrastructure, especially in relation to news.
A key flaw in this partnership plan was the issue of the delivery platforms. Because the BBC had not taken Gaelic into account as it planned its move to digital broadcasting, no room had been made available for the Gaelic service on Freeview, which has limited delivery capacity. Although there was a commitment to making the Gaelic service available on Freeview, which would involve additional costs, the issue of exactly when this would happen was fudged. A fair amount of sleight of hand was involved; the phrase `digital service’ was the operative shorthand phrase used, which to the man on the street, bombarded with publicity for the Freeview digital terrestrial service, meant Freeview. But it didn’t mean Freeview, and when BBC Alba was
launched in September 2008 it was available via satellite only.
The Freeview issue also got tangled up in a different set of political complications. Following the scandal of David Kelly’s suicide and the Hutton Report, the BBC set up new governance structures, including a new BBC Trust to replace the former Board of Governors. Key strategic decisions now require the approval of this Trust and it appears keen to demonstrate its supposed independence. Gaelic broadcasting has presented an ideal opportunity for muscle-flexing by the Trust, as the Gaelic audience represents a small, marginal and politically inconsequential community far off the radar screen of the London-centric BBC Trustees.
So the Trust has erected a series of hurdles for the Gaelic service and then promptly erected new ones as soon as the previous ones are cleared. Instead of authorising the launch on Freeview as part of its original decision to give BBC Alba the green light, as had been expected, the Trust required BBC Alba to come back at the end of 2009 and show that it was doing enough to attract non-Gaelic speakers to the channel to justify the additional injection of resources involved in the rollout to Freeview. When BBC Alba duly provided this evidence, backed up by thousands of submissions from local authorities, public bodies and the viewing public, the Trust decided in March 2010 to defer its decision until autumn 2010 so that it could consider the issues in the light of a wider strategic review of the BBC’s services. So BBC Alba has now been held hostage to the outcome of a much wider, UK-wide debate about the BBC’s overall output, including the threatened BBC 6 and Asian Network, a debate in which Gaelic will be only a very peripheral consideration.
So for the first eighteen months of its life (and for the foreseeable future), BBC Alba has been only available via satellite, a technology that requires the purchase of expensive equipment (a set-top box and the satellite dish itself) above and beyond the cost of the licence fee and the actual television set. No other BBC service requiresviewers to incur these additional costs; every other BBC channel was made available on Freeview from the outset. Gaelic viewers are uniquely penalised in a way that seems to go against the BBC’s most fundamental principles of universality and public service.
About 93% of satellite users also incur the additional cost of a subscription to Rupert Murdoch’s Sky service, adding, for some, an element of political distastefulness to the financial (and aesthetic) burdens of accessing satellite. The BBC now has a subscription-free satellite service called Freesat, for which only involves the (not inconsiderable) one-off costs of equipment and installation, but uptake has been minimal so far, only about 7% of satellite customers, or 3% of total television viewers.
A less publicised problem has been the issue of getting BBC Alba delivered via cable. This was supposed to have happened at the time of the service’s launch in September 2008, but eighteen months later, there is still no agreement in place with the key cable provider, Virgin Media. About 13% of viewers pay for a cable subscription, and it is no surprise that few of these viewers, having chosen that option and incurred that expense, are willing to switch to satellite in order to access BBC Alba.
There is a good chance that these various delivery issues will be resolved at some point in the next year or two, although securing the BBC Trust’s ultimate approval in relation to Freeview must remain, for political reasons, uncertain. But years of goodwill and potential will have been wasted. In the year and a half since its launch, BBC Alba has made much less of the impact and `splash’ than it could and should have.
Even so, in the long run the bigger problem may be the issue of funding. Producing television programmes is expensive business and, contrary to the apparent belief of some anti-Gaelic critics, the costs do not decrease in line with the size of the audience. The current budget for BBC Alba is only around £20 million per year (with just £14 million for content), compared to £103 million for S4C, £89.5 million for BBC 3 and £1,200 million for BBC 1. Gaelic broadcasting insiders estimate that £30 million per year is the minimum that could sustain an adequate service. For the moment, BBC Alba offers a diet of repeats, sports programmes (principally designed to attract non-Gaelic speakers, in line with the BBC Trust’s demands) and a mix of
highbrow cultural programmes and mass-market, light-entertainment twaddle. Even this mix of output involves an element of `front-loading’, spending a disproportionate amount of resources up front in order to build an audience and goodwill; current resourcing would not allow even this level of `quality’ and diversity for much longer.
There are certainly reasons why government and the wider public might not want to spend £30 million a year on Gaelic broadcasting and push it closer to the centre of Scottish cultural life and public discourse. But unless and until that kind of commitment is made, BBC Alba simply cannot thrive.
This is the paradox of provision for Gaelic in Scotland more generally: a disparate mix of thinly funded and disconnected half-measures, often taken as an after-thought, or not really thought through at all. Perhaps the glass is filling very slowly, but it remains mostly empty.