Thursday, 26 November 2015

Gaelic TV loses £1m in cuts, UK gov loses influence

Gaelic television is to lose £1 million of UK government funding as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review.

That shouldn’t be a surprise, given that the Department of Culture, Media and Sport has a budget cut of five per cent and S4C, the Welsh channel, has had a chunk of funding cut too.

But the £1 million represents 100 per cent of the UK government’s  stake in Gaelic broadcasting.

The funding, about five per cent of the Gaelic channel BBC Alba’s total budget, is not a huge amount of but its loss has cultural and political symbolism which appear to have escaped John Whittingdale, the Culture Secretary. 

BBC Alba, the Gaelic language TV service (you’ll find it on Sky ch143) is funded from a combination of public sources.

The service was set up the in the 1990s by the then Tory government with funding of £8 million a year, and a dedicated channel came along in 2008 and is well supported by viewers, both Gaelic and English speakers.

It is now funded by the Scottish government to the tune of  £13.8 million, with £1 million from the Department of Culture Media and Sport in Whitehall and £8 million from the BBC in terms of cash and technical services.

In television terms it is not much, but with £1 million the channel was able to produce a drama series, Bannan, which is in its second run.

The loss of the DCMS funding will be a disappointment for MG Alba, which had lobbied for the cash stream to be maintained.

The funding was guaranteed by Danny Alexander, the Lib Dem Highland MP, when he was chief secretary of the Treasury.

He understood the value of the small amount of support, but Gaelic now has few friends inside government, and no one was on watch in Westminster looking out for it. 

Culturally, it now looks as if the UK government is just turning its back on one of the country’s oldest indigenous cultures and the medium it has become most accessible in.

In political terms it is a bigger mistake. The funding was the last toe-hold the UK government had on Gaelic broadcasting.

Earlier this month the Scotland Bill included a little-noticed clause devolving power to make appointments to the governing board of the channel to the Scottish government. Now the UK government has surrendered its financial influence too.

Politically, the SNP government wants control of state broadcasting in Scotland,  and in terms of Gaelic it now shares that control with the BBC, as well as the responsibility for funding it.

It is only a hop and a step to extend that argument to English language broadcasting too. 

It may be that the DCMS is cutting the cash to prime the argument that the BBC ought to step in to fill the gap.

There is a BBC review going on right now, which openly questions the value of minority broadcasting and makes some unfavourable comparisons.

Anyone with an interest in Gaelic broadcasting (or a stake, as I do myself as a freelance contributor) should respond to that consultation.

Pressure ought to be brought on Whittingdale and the Scotland Office to revisit the decision,  it is not a lot of money after all.

How much of that pressure will come from the SNP, in whose interest it is not to have UK departmental involvement in Scottish broadcasting, remains to be seen.

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