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RTÉ Should Be TG4 – And Here’s Why

Lecturer and author Niamh Hourigan discusses TG4, the Irish language television channel, in the Irish Times with some interesting, if debatable, points:

“Although fully independent of RTÉ since 2007, the national broadcaster continues to play a significant role in TG4 through the provision of news and other programming. When my book Escaping the Global Village , which dealt with the campaign to establish the broadcaster was published in 2003, it was already clear it had become a force for innovation on the Irish media landscape. The service had transformed the image of Irish television and introduced new programme formats and work practices which were quickly copied by other broadcasters.

A critical point was reached in 1999 when the station changed its name from TnaG to TG4, positioning itself as the fourth major television service in Ireland. The schedule was also revamped, with more primetime slots devoted to English-language programming, and with less popular Irish language programmes being positioned around these sure-fire audience winners. Sixteen years on from its initial launch, it was inevitable the pace of innovation would slow as the service moved to maturity. Yet the resoundingly positive public response to the TG4 general election debate between the three party leaders last February illustrated how firmly the station has established itself as a player.”

Most of this is true and Hourigan later examines the station’s positive impact on children’s’ programming in Ireland (despite facing tough competition from English language rivals, principally of course the cheap British and American imports broadcast on RTÉ). However her claim that it would be difficult for TG4 to compete in the area of current affairs programming with RTÉ’s Primtime or TV3’s Vincent Brown Tonight is less convincing. What difficulties exist in this area are largely due to budgetary restraints more than anything else and it is arguable that a Dublin-based news studio for TG4 would have a positive impact on its overall news and current affairs output. Dublin is the nation’s capital and the de facto centre for most national politics (and most news stories); the lack of a Dublin-based centre for TG4 is a severe handicap to its growth and development. Another liability is its reliance on RTÉ for its news programming. Contracting out to RTÉ has detracted from the station’s independence and the plurality of views in the national media and this can only be rectified by the network establishing a completely separate news and current affairs division.

Niamh Hourigan then tackles the thorny, and frequently misunderstood, issue of bilingualism.

“Fulfilling its public service remit to broadcast programmes in the Irish language will always be a hugely complex task for TG4 because attitudes to the language are so complex.

The tensions were very evident during the recent controversy about the exclusive broadcasting of a Leinster-Munster Pro 12 League rugby game on TG4. Former Irish rugby international Neil Francis was publicly critical, saying: “I have no idea what commentators or the analysts are saying, and I have no idea whether they are any good or not – and I suspect 99.5 per cent of the people who had to watch the match on the channel didn’t either.”

The key source of the tension here was the exclusive rights of TG4 to the game. Here in another form was compulsion – Irish citizens being forced to grapple with the Irish language – and it was clear a considerable proportion of them didn’t like it.”

This is a highly tendentious and somewhat partisan argument (and it is by no means clear that the proportion who objected was “considerable” – vocal maybe, and with ready access to the English language media establishment in the country but by no means a majority). TG4 is an Irish language television network in Ireland, the same way that TV3 is an English language network in Ireland (and in this case, a British owned one to boot). Indeed, with the creation of TG4 we have seen RTÉ, Ireland’s national public service broadcaster, all but abandon Irish language programming on its TV channels. Yet no arguments are made that the 42% of the population that identify themselves as fluent or partial Irish speakers should be catered for on these TV stations through bilingual programming. Are RTÉ and TV3 suddenly going to be “forced” to provide 42% of their output in Irish? Hardly.

Yet it is seen as quiet acceptable that an Irish language channel – the only Irish language channel – should be pressurised into accommodating English speaking viewers – who are already catered for with three English language TV channels (not to mention dozens of international English language broadcasters freely available on a wide range of platforms). This is yet another argument for positive discrimination in favour of English speakers when negative discrimination against Irish speakers is widespread and institutionalised throughout the state.

TG4 is an Irish speaking TV station for an Irish speaking audience, the exact same way that RTÉ and TV3 are English speaking TV stations for an English speaking audience. To argue that it must also become (as it has to some extent) a bilingual channel, when no such restrictions are placed on those channels which broadcast exclusively in English, is simply unfair and unbalanced. Or worse.

If anything TG4, nearly two decades on, should be moving away from bilingualism and the broadcasting of English language programming. It should be concentrating on producing indigenous programming (which its rivals have largely abandoned except for a steady diet of cheap, trash television) and the use of subtitling and dubbing for non-Irish language shows and movies. It should make standard the use of dual language audio channels (as is common in many bilingual nations) and expand its online presence. The separation from RTÉ should be completed by ending the supply of programming from the “national” broadcaster and instead the production of all domestic programming should be in-house or from the independent sector (a very positive and productive source as it is. In fact, as has been frequently stated, there would be no viable independent television production in Ireland without TG4!).

Though it is regarded as sacrosanct by many, the present headquarters of TG4 in Baile na hAbhann, in the west of Ireland should be reviewed. At the very least a studio complex, even a relatively modest one, should be created in Dublin and the news and current affairs department must be located there. In the area of public service radio broadcasting in Irish TG4 is surely the logical organisation to turn to. Raidió na Gaeltachta (RnaG), for reasons which mystify most people, remains under the control of RTÉ. As an Irish language radio station its treatment in the RTÉ structure is simply abysmal. Underfunded, undersourced, poorly ran and structured, it is the (deliberately) forgotten arm of the network.

RnaG must be liberated from the dead hand of Montrose and this can only come through an amalgamation with TG4. A single Irish language television and radio network, with a unified corporate structure and image, would provide the greatest value for money and service to viewers and listeners. What we have now is a mess, a national broadcaster that broadcasts almost exclusively in English controlling an Irish speaking radio station, when an Irish speaking TV station could do the job, and probably double the return in terms of investment and resources. The uniting of TG4 with RnaG would create a mutually supportive, symbiotic organisation with a cross-fertilization of audiences and programming.

It is time we faced up to the facts of where we really are in terms of Ireland’s media organisations. RTÉ is Ireland’s national English language public service broadcaster on television and radio. TG4, with RnaG, must become Ireland’s national Irish language public service broadcaster on television and radio. This is the only way forward that makes sound financial, organisational and broadcasting sense.

Of course, if we were really sensible, and really concerned about more bang for our tax-paying buck, we would leave English language broadcasting in Ireland entirely to the private sector (with suitable regulations to ensure Irish ownership of the media and guaranteed levels of quality and news, documentary and drama output). Pubic service broadcasting would then be entirely through the Irish language and RTÉ would be a monolingual Irish broadcaster. The freeing up of advertising revenue in English would create a secure income stream for the independent English language broadcasters who would no longer have to appeal to the lowest common denominator in terms of TV output in order to ensure their survival (an especially sensible move as broadcasters outside of Ireland have now come to dominate our domestic market through services on cable, satellite and the internet). Such a move might well spell a renaissance for English language broadcasting, on TV and radio, in Ireland.

Likewise, for Irish language broadcasting the full weight, depth of experience and resources of RTÉ would transform its fortunes. With two television channels (RTÉ 1 and 2) and three radio channels (Radio 1, 2FM and RnaG) the scope for growth and development would be enormous (the current, entirely wasteful provision of half-hearted digital TV and radio channels could be dropped). The revenue lost by broadcasting in Irish alone, including restrictions on carrying only Irish language advertising, would be partially replaced by rolling the budget and assets of TG4 back into the RTÉ structure.

Other reforms could include the dropping of the ineffective and increasingly irrelevant TV licence fee (for which An Post charges an astonishing 20 million euros a year to administer yet which fails to collect millions of euros each year from people or businesses that refuse to pay or otherwise dodge payment). Like some other nations, in the age of multiplatform devices, where a licence for a “television set” is simply an anachronism, direct state funding, overseen by a fully independent body, is the only sensible way forward. A budget of 400 million euros a year would provide an entirely adequate public service broadcasting network for Ireland. And all through the medium of the Irish language.

That is the logical, cost-effective way forward. So don’t expect it to happen. Ever.

4 comments on “RTÉ Should Be TG4 – And Here’s Why

  1. The argument for changing the status quo in TG4 by re-locating to Dublin would defeat the raison d’etre of the station.

    It works in an Irish language milieu where it is and this arguably it’s most precious advantage, would be lost in the event of a move. This is the same argument used in counteracting the Government decision to “merge” the office of the Copimisinéir Teanga into the Ombusdsman’s Office or the more alarming decision of the Department of Education to abolish by merging at least 50% of Gaeltacht Schools!

    I have no problem with the argument of merging RnaG & TG4 but they must be located in the Gaeltacht to have any true credulity, otherwise they make as much sense as having a broadcasting service in Latin, a broadcasting service for the elite. I have still less of a problem with selling RTÉ off to the highest bidder with suitable protections.

    I moved to the Gaeltacht some years ago from South County Dublin and I have news. Life does not begin and end in Dublin. Looking at the News of TG4 and comparing it to that on RTÉ sometimes one might be looking at two different worlds.

    There is an argument for “out-stations” for TG4 (as RnaG has and not all of them are in Gaeltacht areas!) Dublin could be one of these.

    I remember making the point, with a Civil Servent, that I had great difficulty in communication with the State in Irish on some essential matter. His comment was that the matter in hand was too important to be worried about the language in which it was communicated.

    That I submit is the reason that our Fair Fox’s “logical, cost-effective way forward” will ever happen. “Ever!” Their heart isn’t in it. If it ever was!


    • Hi Eoin. I quite agree with you that it would be preferable to retain the HQ for TG4 in the Gaeltacht, for all the reasons you have stated. However I would still argue that such a placement must be coupled with a strong presence in Dublin city.

      For good or bad the Dublin region is the political, governmental, cultural and media hub of the country. It is also the home to the single greatest concentration of population on the island. With TG4 having no real physical presence in the city it is cut off from these sources of information and influence. Even a modest studio complex in Dublin city would raise the channel’s profile and require that politicians etc. pay more attention to it. Particularly if that studio complex housed a section of TG4’s news and current affairs department (as well as some others).

      If TG4 and RnaG were amalgamated I believe the combination of both would be much more cost effective, and would certainly provide a more comprehensive and in-depth media service for Irish speakers. It would also help in the creation of a news dept for TG4 entirely separate from RTÉ’s, and hopefully the provision of programming from RTÉ to TG4 could be done away with altogether and the channel could stand entirely on its own feet. This would enhance the plurality of news and views in our national media (and break the RTÉ / TV3 duopoly).

      In an ideal world, where common sense, reason and value-for-money concepts prevailed, TV3 would become Ireland’s privately-owned English language media broadcaster, while RTÉ would become Ireland’s publically-owned Irish language media broadcaster. TG4 would no longer be needed. But that ideal world will never be found in the short-term policies and myopia of politicians and civil servants.

      They can force us to change from punts to euros and miles to kilometres, drive smoking from pubs and restaurants and a motorway through Tara, but God help them when it ever comes to making a real decision that would do some real good in this pitiful state of ours. Irish politicians don’t do the “vision thing”. But then, as you say, why would they when their heart is not in it?


  2. Surely you’re not suggesting that we should all pander to the notion that Dublin is the centre of the universe and that the remainder of the country is devoid of culture?! There may be more facilities in Dublin but there is plenty of culture outside of the capital. This, however, is not a concern for many and is therefore often not reflected in the media which are primarily centered around Dublin. It is away from this presentation of one world view from one vantage point and towards a more inclusive society that reflects several world views from several vantage points we should be moving.


    • Hi, Eilís, and thank you for your Comment. In an ideal world you would be quiet correct. Unfortunately we don’t live in an ideal world. Or ideal Ireland.

      Dublin remains the national capital in more ways than one. The centre of politics, governance, the civil service, the direction of the economy and the media. It is here that the country’s “culture” is shaped through a small elite in our national television, radio and print media. And it is here that we have the single biggest concentration of population on the island.

      The lack of a real presence by TG4 in the national capital is to its disadvantage and that of the Irish speaking population in general. I believe very strongly in a “regional” or Gaeltacht component to TG4 and RnaG. Again in an ideal world, we should have RTÉ doing what TG4 is doing and TG4 acting as a regional community channel for the Gaeltachtaí. Unfortunately the sense in that will never be seen by the powers that be, so.

      The main part of TG4 should be relocated to Dublin. A more “community” function should be given to its broadcasting in the Gaeltachtaí, with a regional Teilifís na Gaeltachta combined with Raidió na Gaeltachta continuing to be HQ’d in Conamara. TG4 proper would then function as a national TV channel combined with a new national radio station (RG4?).

      Just a few thoughts. Far from ideal but maybe a better service for all concerned?


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