Lack of money no excuse for RTÉ’s paltry Irish programming

State broadcaster is in breach of its obligations under the Broadcasting Act

RTÉ: on its mainstream radio and TV services, 99 per cent of material is in English. Irish has never been centre-stage on the main channels. Photograph: Alan Betson

RTÉ: on its mainstream radio and TV services, 99 per cent of material is in English. Irish has never been centre-stage on the main channels. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

The Irish Language Commissioner’s recent investigation which found that RTÉ had breached the Broadcasting Act by failing to provide a “comprehensive range of programmes” in Irish is a significant development in relation to the Irish language in the media.

First, it underlines the importance of a little-known provision of the Official Languages Act under which the commissioner is empowered to investigate suspected breaches of any other “enactment” or law in which Irish is mentioned. More than 150 such enactments have been introduced since the foundation of the State and some carry significant implications for the promotion of Irish.

Second, the investigation’s significance is amplified by the fact that it applies to one of the country’s most high-profile public bodies, RTÉ. Despite the increasing fragmentation of the media landscape over the past decade, RTÉ remains highly influential on Irish society and continues to play a key role in relation to the Irish language.

Many of the provisions mentioning Irish are vague, imprecise and symbolic and mention only general aims about the promotion of Irish or bilingualism. However there are a smaller number of provisions granting significant protection to Irish in the fields of language planning, education, the Gaeltacht, signage, public employment and broadcasting. References in the Broadcasting Act to a “comprehensive range of programmes” in Irish could have significant implications for RTÉ far beyond general exhortations about the promotion of Irish found elsewhere in the Act.

Statutory obligations

Only 1 per cent of programming on RTÉ Radio One and RTÉ 2FM was in Irish, with just 0.1 per cent on RTÉ Lyric FM. Those figures are lower than many commercial and community radio stations and are in line with the commissioner’s finding that only 0.7 per cent of television output is in Irish.

The commissioner held that RTÉ’s statutory obligations in relation to Irish are being fulfilled in the case of its audio service but that this was due mostly to Raidió na Gaeltachta. The commissioner implies that he is concerned by the small amount of Irish broadcast on other radio services and I agree with him.

Only 1 per cent of programming on RTÉ Radio One and RTÉ 2FM was in Irish, with just 0.1 per cent on RTÉ Lyric FM

The specialist Irish-language channels Raidió na Gaeltachta and TG4 were established because of the marginalisation of the Irish language on existing radio and television services. It was never intended that Irish would be pushed even further to the margins of RTÉ when they went on the air and indeed successive broadcasting Acts have attempted to avoid such a situation.

However, the commissioner’s investigation and our own research confirm that this has occurred. Such a situation is not only a breach of the Broadcasting Act but also contradicts one of the objectives of the 20-year strategy for the Irish language where a commitment is given that RTÉ will “normalise” Irish in its programming.

The strategy does not define “normalisation” but a good working definition would be the commissioner’s interpretation of “a comprehensive range of programmes” and a significant improvement on 0.7 per cent which by no stretch of the imagination can be taken to be “comprehensive”.

Budgetary constraints

In its response to the investigation, RTÉ drew attention to the large reduction in its funding in recent years and how it has subsequently been obliged to work within tight budgetary constraints. In the light of such arguments, it will be challenging for the broadcaster to draw up a satisfactory plan for the commissioner showing how it will implement the relevant subsections of the Broadcasting Act.

Budgetary constraints do not give permission to any public body to breach legislation, of course, and this case may well highlight the need for additional Government support for RTÉ. However, the fact remains that, on its mainstream radio and television services, 99 per cent of material broadcast by RTÉ is in English and that Irish has never been centre-stage on the country’s main radio and television channels.

RTÉ is highly relevant in the lives of Irish people and permeates all aspects of society including the Irish language

RTÉ is highly relevant in the lives of Irish people and permeates all aspects of society including the Irish language. Public attitudes towards Irish, including the presence of Irish in the media, have been consistently positive over decades. RTÉ’s few Irish language programmes command healthy viewership figures and the station could play a more central role in the implementation of the Government’s 20-year strategy. It remains to be seen if such a role can be strengthened as a result of this milestone investigation by the commissioner.

Dr John Walsh is a senior lecturer in Irish at NUI Galway, specialising in language policy and minority language media

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