Sitting At The Back Of The Bus – But Not For Much Longer…

The Irish language on TV3?

Well not quiet. Ever since TV3 snatched away the exclusive broadcast rights to the GAA’s All-Ireland Minor Championship finals in hurling and football there has been considerable controversy over the British-owned television channel’s ambiguous responses on whether or not it would continue to broadcast the games in Irish, following on from RTÉ’s popular coverage of the events. I wrote about this a few months ago and was less than sanguine about the chances of an exclusively English-speaking television station actually taking notice of the fact that we live in a bilingual nation and I was right – and wrong. A report on Breaking News explains why:

‘The tradition of live TV broadcasts of the GAA All-Ireland Minor finals in Irish will continue after an announcement by TV3 today.

TV3 and its sister station 3e will provide a simulcast broadcast of the finals on September 4 (Hurling) and 18 (football).

In what will be a first for Irish broadcasting, TV3 and 3e will offer viewers the choice of language in which to watch the All-Ireland Hurling and Football Minor Finals.

Commentary on 3e will be broadcast as Gaeilge while TV3 will broadcast commentary in English.

The All-Ireland Minor Hurling final between Galway and Dublin on September 4 will be the first Irish language programme to be broadcast on either TV3 or 3e.’

3e was a minor cable channel acquired and rebranded by the TV3 Group in 2008 and up to now its only real claim to fame has been the shallowness of its programme schedules, with a trashy diet of cheap British and American imports that make its broadcast stable-mate in TV3 look like high-brow television (and that’s saying something). As it is 3e continues to be largely a cable and satellite entity, with little presence on the terrestrial or analogue TV channels and an average audience figure of around 1% (though that may change with the move to digital television broadcasting and greater prominence on the Saorview service).

The decision by the management of TV3 to simulcast the games in English and Irish is a surprising one given the network’s broadcast philosophy (cheap, lowest denominator television for the greatest viewership). However it does perhaps speak volumes about the current status of the Irish language and the Irish speaking population in Ireland. A decade or more ago the TV3 Group would probably have taken the commercially-driven decision to broadcast the championship games in English only with little recourse by those who opposed or felt disenfranchised by the move, and little reaction from the wider media or general public.

After all in its thirteen year history TV3 has never broadcast a programme in the Irish language. As Ireland’s ‘independent television network’ that says much for the shameful manner in which broadcast regulations in Ireland were ‘liberalised’ by our corrupt incompetent political establishment, the failure to legislate for linguistic and cultural equality suiting the demands of the ‘private market’. TV3 instead became a moderately profitable cash-cow for a series of foreign owners (presently it is a London-based investment company called Doughty Hanson & Co) with a schedule of foreign TV programming and simulcasts with the British network ITV (hence the description of TV3 as ITV Ireland or the rather more biting acronym of TVWB – TV West Brit).

However, the times have changed.

The Irish-speaking population is no longer the powerless and discriminated minority of yesteryear, despite the continued bigotry of some in the Anglophone communities. What was fringe has become mainstream, and the Irish community today includes men, women and children from every region, every class and every walk of Irish life. The Irish-speaking areas of the 21st century are just as likely to be found in Dublin’s working class inner city or middle class suburbs as in some rural, west coast setting. The old paradigms no longer apply and that, perhaps, is one reason why a commercial enterprise like TV3, whose main purpose is to make money – and profit – by gaining advertisers through audience numbers, has opted to provide a dual-language service for these particular broadcasts. If there is money to be made there will always be someone there to exploit it: and in any language.

Of course some might take a more cynical view and regard this as merely a sop to a ‘vociferous minority’ or the token use of an available minor television channel by the TV3 Group in order to deflect criticism of an unpopular decision to show the games in English on their main channel. However that still says much, for even the most vociferous of minorities will gain nothing for all the noise they might make unless they have some real power and influence – and numbers. And a simulcast in Irish will cost the TV3 money: money on facilities, transmission, programming and presenters (though of course we will have to wait and see just how all this will work out and whether the Irish language programming will actually be ‘on the cheap’).

So there must be some pay-off in it for them more than simply silencing critics. Will this go towards the 30% of ‘made in Ireland’ programming they are legally obliged to produce? TV3 successfully lobbied in 2009 to have 3e added to the conditions governing their original contract with the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland: does mean their 30% can now be split across two channels, making it far easier to achieve with minimal real input?

Naturally none of this controversy would have arisen if the GAA had insisted that Irish be maintained as the language of transmission for the championship games as part of the new deal signed with the TV3 Group, or at least retained the Irish language broadcast rights to the finals and sold them to someone else (separate broadcasting contracts for different languages is the norm in multilingual nations across Europe and has been for decades). In this area the GAA has let down both itself and its supporters very badly indeed and an urgent review of its media policies is needed. After all Rule 4 of the GAA’s regulations states:

‘The Association shall actively support the Irish language, traditional Irish dancing, music, song, and other aspects of Irish culture. It shall foster an awareness and love of the national ideals in the people of Ireland, and assist in promoting a community spirit through its clubs.’

However there may be some grounds for optimism here. There are countless examples in history of minority opinions becoming those of the majority. It could be that the Irish rights activists of this century will prove to be the equivalent of the environmental activists of the last century, for it was in the latter half of the last century that environmentalism went from being the isolated concern of a ‘few’ to the mainstream philosophy of the ‘many’.

So, though relegated to the colder fringes of Irish television broadcasting in 3e than the sunnier climes of TV3, the future doesn’t look as dark as it might have been. The TV3 of ten years ago would have simply ignored the Irish language and the Irish language community. While Irish speaking men, women and children may not be allowed to ride at the front of the bus just yet at least now they are actually allowed on the bus. And from the back the only place to go is forward.

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