Now we know where BBC Scotland’s money is going Scotland’s broadcasting malaise: Part II

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Kenneth Roy

There is a nasty rumour that you can occasionally see an Ayr United game on the Gaelic television channel BBC Alba. Whether the commentary on these baroque occasions is in Gaelic, I have been unable to establish. Since Ayr United are much the same in any language, and may even appear marginally better with the sound off, it matters little one way or the other. There are precious few Ayr United supporters. There are precious few BBC Alba supporters. It is, in its bizarre way, a match made in heaven.
     When BBC Alba was launched in September 2008, it achieved a weekly ‘reach’ (share of the television audience in Scotland) of 5.5% in its first seven months on air. This modest figure was not long sustained. In the following year, to the spring of 2010, its share fell to 4.3%. This means that, at some point in the week, 180,000 people watch BBC Alba.
     There may be those – presumably the management of BBC Scotland – who see this result as mildly encouraging. The Gaelic channel is attracting three times the number of Gaelic speakers in Scotland, so it must be doing something right. Maybe the aficionados of lower league football amount to a bigger crowd of fully paid-up masochists than we ever imagined. But if you turn the statistics around (and what else are statistics for?), they look less chirpy. If 4.3% of the television audience are watching BBC Alba, it follows that 95.7% are watching something else.


I propose to repeat that last figure so that you may ponder its possible significance. I will even give it the luxury of a paragraph to itself.


     I am the last editor on earth who should be attacking minority interests, being the propagator of one myself. The Scottish Review’s weekly readership (14,000 in a good one) is easily exceeded by BBC Alba, yet I wake up some mornings with the feeling that what I do is useful. Who, then, am I to knock other acquired tastes? But there is at least one essential difference between the Scottish Review and BBC Alba. We have a budget of a few thousand a year. BBC Alba has a budget of £17m.
     I propose to repeat that last figure so that you may ponder its possible significance. I will even give it the luxury of a paragraph to itself.
     Seventeen million pounds.
     A year.
     If the friends of Gaeldom – and, as a former adjudicator at the National Mod, I insist that I’m one of them – were suddenly to be given this loot and told to distribute it equitably, every man, woman and child in the Gaelic-speaking community would receive an annual handout of almost £300. Or it could be used to fund local cultural enterprises in that same community. Instead these scarce resources are grabbed by the BBC and used to bankroll its expansionist ambitions in every corner of the known universe, including Broadford.
     The support for Gaelic broadcasting (and Ayr United) must, however, be put in a sensible perspective. There may be those – presumably the management of BBC Scotland – who believe that £17m of other people’s money is, in the great scheme of things, not a lot.
     Here, then, is the perspective.
     Earlier this week, SR revealed that the combined annual spend of BBC Scotland and STV on English-language television for Scottish viewers has fallen from £72m in 2004 to £50m last year, a drop of 30%. It is a peculiarity of the Ofcom report from which these astonishing figures are extracted that there is no breakdown of what is spent by each of the national broadcasters. We asked BBC Scotland for its own figure and it has kindly supplied one. Last year it spent £41 million on these programmes.
     If this is true – and we have no reason to doubt it – and if the industry regulator stands by its own stats, we are left to conclude that STV’s spend on English-language programmes for Scottish viewers is only £9m a year – just over half the amount being lavished on the BBC’s Gaelic channel. We may ask STV to confirm or deny this improbable deduction, but for the time being we are concerned with the BBC.
     There are 5,186,427 people living in Scotland, of whom 58,652 are Gaelic speakers. The 5,127,775 who do not speak Gaelic have English-language TV programmes costing £41m a year, while the 58,652 who do speak Gaelic have Gaelic TV programmes costing £17m. Put another way: 29% of BBC Scotland’s total expenditure on TV programmes for Scottish viewers of both languages is devoted to 1.1% of the population (plus any remaining Ayr United supporters).
     Is this fair? Endangered languages should be supported and there is an overwhelming case for keeping Gaelic alive – it is the vital part of a wonderful culture. But 29%? It does feel like positive discrimination gone mad. The huge cut in the budget for English-language programmes arouses the suspicion that the development of Gaelic TV is being pursued at the expense of Scottish broadcasting and the Scottish community as a whole. It seems that the BBC can no longer afford the inquiring journalism of such programmes as ‘Frontline Scotland’, but that somehow it can afford hour after hour of original material in Gaelic – 678 hours a year at the latest count – at a cost of £25,000 an hour. As one independent producer struggling for commissions put it to me: ‘What must I do to survive? Learn Gaelic?’ It might not be a bad career move.


When Gaelic programming was part of the mainstream, it could be a helpful influence in bringing languages and cultures together.


     It is at least questionable whether the policy of cultural isolation implicit in the setting up of BBC Alba as a Gaelic ghetto is even beneficial to the Gaelic-speaking cause. When Gaelic programming was part of the mainstream, it could be a helpful influence in bringing languages and cultures together.
     Here is an example of what I mean. In the early 1990s, when I was writing a weekly television review for Scotland on Sunday, I gave a moderately rave notice to a new Gaelic drama series, ‘Machair’, being pioneered by STV. The young director got in touch to say how much he appreciated this expression of support; it seemed that, until my column appeared, the idea of a series about the life of a modern Gaelic-speaking community had been widely ridiculed. I went on praising ‘Machair’ as a well-crafted popular drama exploring contemporary themes in an interesting way. Gradually it caught on. At the peak of its popularity it was being watched by 30% of Scotland’s TV audience. It became a Top 10 hit. Of course most of its fans couldn’t understand a word of the programme; they depended on the sub-titles. But by the end of the series all of us who enjoyed ‘Machair’ had a better understanding of Gaelic Scotland and a warmer sympathy for it. Where would such a brave series be placed now? In the ghetto of BBC Alba, no doubt.
     By the most delightful coincidence, four of the eight people in charge of BBC Scotland – the ‘management team’ – including the top cat, Ken MacQuarrie, happen to be from Gaelic-speaking Scotland. Perhaps they will address some of the inequalities and transparent absurdities brought to light by these SR pieces.
     On the other hand, perhaps not.

This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.