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Call to give BBC Alba the same status as S4C to help Gaelic survive

11 Mar 2022 5 minute read
Rugby coverage on BBC Alba

BBC Alba should be given the same status and guarantees about its future as S4C in order to help ensure the survival of Scotland’s Gaelic language, a university professor has said.

Professor Robert Dunbar of the University of Edinburgh said that there was no law to ensure the broadcasting of BBC Alba as there was S4C, it did not have public service broadcaster status, and there was no guarantee that it would continue to be funded.

He also added that legislation should specify the role of the BBC in the service and what the regulatory framework was for the service, in particular the oversight role of Ofcom.

“All parties in the Scottish Parliament are committed to the maintenance and continued revitalisation of Gaelic, and there is now wide recognition in Scotland of the importance to the nation of the language, its speakers, and its rich culture,” he wrote in the Scotsman.

“By taking the legislative measures outlined here, the UK will not only be fulfilling this commitment, it will be laying the foundation for the creation of a Gaelic media service that is fit for the future, creating jobs, growing the language, supporting a new generation of media entrepreneurs, and helping Gaelic communities to tell their stories to the world.”

He said that as well as bringing the Gaelic language into homes across Scotland and “showcasing the diversity and vibrancy of Gaelic culture” it had also created hundreds of jobs in Gaelic speaking communities.

“It has also created good employment for those with Gaelic language skills, not least in the Western Isles and Skye, where 160 of the 340 full-time-equivalent jobs in Gaelic broadcasting are based,” he said.

“Such investment makes a significant contribution to regional development, and to efforts to maintain the language in its remaining heartland communities.

“What’s more, BBC Alba is popular with Gaelic-speakers and wider public, providing real value to all of its audiences. The service is now widely recognised as a key element in Scotland’s broadcasting ecology.”

‘No long term future’

In January the UK Government’s Culture Secretary has announced £7.5 million extra for S4C, but its long term future looks unclear after she also called for an end to the license fee that currently funds the service.

According to the UK Government, S4C’s settlement will consolidate S4C’s current £74.5m annual Licence Fee funding with its current £6.8m annual DCMS grant income.

It said it would also award S4C a further £7.5 million per annum from the Licence Fee to support its digital development. This follows a five-year funding freeze.

In total, this will provide S4C with approximately £88.8 million in Licence Fee funding per annum, the UK Government says, which will rise in line with increases to the Licence Fee linked to inflation after the second year of the settlement period.

The new funding regime will come into effect from 1 April 2022, with the settlement continuing until 31 March 2027. It remains unclear how S4C will be funded after the licence fee comes to an end.

Responding to the Secretary of State’s announcement, S4C’s Chief Executive, Siân Doyle, said “This is great news for S4C’s audience in Wales and beyond. In light of the announcement we will now work carefully to implement our plans for 2022-27.

“We’ll look to see how we can transform our S4C Clic player, ensuring the wider distribution of our content on digital platforms, and improving our visibility on smart TVs. All of this reflects the change in the way people watch content and television programmes.”

However a prominent academic warned that the announcement that the licence fee will be frozen for the next few years and potentially scrapped in 2027 was an “existential threat” to the Welsh language.

Prof. Richard Wyn Jones, Director of Cardiff University’s Wales Governance, warned that the announcement was a threat to the futures of both S4C and Radio Cymru, which depended on the survival of public service broadcasting.

Even if S4C received more funding in the short term its long term future was not guaranteed, he said.

“The Johnson government’s attack on the very principle of broadcasting – if nothing changes, the BBC as we have known it will cease to exist after 2027 – means that there’s no long term future for S4C,” he said.

“After all, can you really imagine a situation in which S4C is the only surviving public broadcaster in the UK that is directly funded by the Treasury in London? If so then, dear God, I’ve got a bridge to sell you…

“To conclude, the future of Radio Cymru is as important S4C’s. S4C is dependent on the health of the BBC but – more fundamentally – on the survival of the principle of public broadcasting.

“Dorries’ announcement is an existential threat to the future of the Welsh language.”

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