November 2016        

TG4: A vision subverted?

Tomás Mac Síomóin

State communications media and their acolytes engineer, overtly and subliminally, the common sense of citizens. By omission or omission, they delegitimise alternative minoritarian modes of common sense. As Antonio Gramsci pointed out, such “common sense is nothing more than ruling-class ideology.” Thus states seek to maintain control, formally and informally, of all information media within their borders. And so they “manufacture consent,” in Noam Chomsky’s pithy formulation.
     Raidió Éireann’s Irish-language programming reflected the folkloric status assigned by the state from its beginnings to Irish and its speakers. Folklore, traditional music, masses in Irish and personal recollections featured prominently in it; serious cultural and political issues, including the Gaeltacht’s severe social and economic problems, did not.
     Concerned by this lack, and inspired by global civil rights agitation in the late 1960s, especially in Northern Ireland, Gluaiseacht Chearta Sibhialta na Gaeltachta (the Gaeltacht Civil Rights Movement) reacted to this lack by setting up an illegal community radio service, Saor-Raidió Chonamara (Conamara Free Radio). Supported by the donations of local citizens, SRC began broadcasting on Easter Sunday, 1970, gaining considerable national press coverage.
     The transmitter and studio were moved from place to place by car to fox the forces of law and order. The station’s popularity forced the Government to bring Irish-language voice media within the orbit of state influence, and in 1972 it established Raidió na Gaeltachta to provide a nationwide Irish-language radio service.
     In the early 1990s, Irish-language material amounted to 5 per cent of RTE’s total programming, and it practically disappeared during the summer. Many Irish-speakers refused to pay their television licence, risking prison. Taking their cue from the precedent of Raidió na Gaeltachta, on 2 October 1987 a new activist group, Coiste ar son Teilifís Gaeltachta (the Committee for Gaeltacht Television), set up Teilifís na Gaeltachta, which broadcast from an unlicensed transmitter on Cnoc Mordáin, a small mountain in Conamara. The transmitter cost £4,000, which was paid for by local communities. It broadcast eighteen hours of live and recorded programmes between 2 and 5 November 1987 and again in December 1988.
     In 1989 An Feachtas Náisiúnta Teilifíse (the National Television Campaign) was founded in Dublin to demand a television station in the Gaeltacht regions to serve Gaeltacht Irish-speakers that would be linked to, but editorially and organisationally independent of, RTE and subject to a special authority with representatives from RTE, the Department of Communications, and Údarás na Gaeltachta.
     Removal of the RTE cap on advertising was suggested as a source of funding, as well as the National Lottery and the television licence—all involving no cost to the exchequer. An initial two hours of Irish-language broadcasting each day was sought, the remaining broadcast hours being for Open University type programmes.
     The Feachtas Náisiúnta Teilifíse and Coiste ar son Teilifís Gaeltachta jointly channelled dissatisfaction with the insufficiency of RTE’s Irish-language television coverage into a nine-year campaign to achieve their objectives. This took the form of repeated, well-supported public demonstrations, intensive lobbying of politicians up to ministerial level, and a constant stream of letters and information to the national press to keep the controversy alive.
     This persistence—the necessary virtue of all serious campaign groups—began to pay off. The outgoing coalition parties, Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrats, called for the establishment of an Irish-language television station in their 1989 manifestos; Fianna Fáil promised to set up one in Conamara to serve the whole country. The Green Party manifesto of 1987 and the 1993 coalition programme of Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party made such a demand. The 1994 “Rainbow Coalition” reiterated the promise; but still no station.
     Pressure was maintained. Finally, Michael D. Higgins, minister for arts, culture and the Gaeltacht under John Bruton, launched Teilifís na Gaeilge in Conamara in 1996. In 1999 it was renamed TG4.
     It now has 800,000 daily viewers—3 per cent of the national television market. The daily Irish-language programme schedule is its core service. Subtitling in English is the norm. Seven hours of programming in Irish is supported by material in other languages, mostly English, in order to keep its audience. Though in its early years Teilifís na Gaeilge broadcast many European programmes with Irish dubbing, this policy was changed to favour a diet of English-language American programmes. SV readers will appreciate the type of “common sense” subliminally introduced by such a diet.
     Most Irish-language programmes are subtitled in English. However, live programming (such as news and sport) is not subtitled. Many Irish-language programmes, especially for children, are also subtitled in Irish.
     TG4 broadcasts all its American teen programmes in English, while Irish-language programming is subtitled on screen in English. TG4 has re-dubbed a number of Hollywood children’s films into Irish.
     Thus the bilingual TG4 faithfully mirrors the subaltern position of Irish, the nation’s first official language but seen as a mere recreational language (or bloody nuisance) by the political establishment and the nation’s Anglophone majority. But can we expect more than such incongruity from a state whose present political, social and economic norms and forms are complicit with the values of international neo-liberal capitalism? Would a vision of the present TG4 service have sent out those pioneers on a stormy night to Cnoc Mordáin in 1987 to bring Irish-language television into being?

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