Television and nation building

Travelling between Ireland and Scotland recently. I was struck by one aspect of Irish life that may not, or at least not yet, be part of the Scottish experience in the same way: there is a shared conversation that accompanies Irish national life and that reaches into the community; and its fuel is television. Apart from the ongoing soul searching about the recession, national insolvency and the attempted economic comeback, the national conversation involves analysis of the current presidential campaign. This is not because the campaign has caught the public imagination; if anything, the conversation is often about how the candidates fall short. But the campaign is being fought over the airwaves, and the various live debates have been a major talking point. It helps that one or two candidates seem to be self-destructing in public, but generally the coming election is a shared experience of the national community, made possible because it is being broadcast to the country as it unfolds.

In fact, the shared experience of television is part of Ireland’s recent history. Almost everyone has some reference point, whether that is the iconic Late Late Show, or the political magazine programmes over the years such as Today Tonight and Prime Time, special series such as that on Charles Haughey, or just the Nine O’Clock news. Even as hundreds of channels became available through cable or satellite, the main national channels (and RTÉ in particular) stayed there as the focus of national conversation. This shaped the country’s identity: who can deny that Gay Byrne’s Late Late made modern Ireland what it is much more than any politician’s manifesto?

Over here in what is now my home in Scotland there is also something of a national conversation, but it is not securely anchored in the same way. Interestingly the key topic of that conversation is nation building, in the setting of the anticipated referendum on independence. But even as this topic is developed, it lacks the compelling support of national broadcasting, lacking in part because the broadcast media are part of a wider United Kingdom heritage. The BBC has a good bit of Scotland-specific programming, but is interspersed between the dominant shared British output. The same is true of STV, which is still on the whole the Scottish arm of the UK’s ITV. The iconic programmes are mostly British. Of course the national debate about Scotland’s future gets along fine anyway, but I do miss the immediate and compelling nature of the  national conversation I am used to in Ireland. I suspect that Scotland needs this also to secure its identity. Perhaps the time has come to consider a genuinely Scottish television station, to share the airwaves with the undoubtedly excellent BBC and other broadcasters.

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3 Comments on “Television and nation building”

  1. Vincent Says:

    I expect that much as the Irish Press performed a roll, the SNP will need a telly station for like reasons. But it will be a harder stand to cross from Callanish to Berwick and Clibberswick to Drummore from one source nowadays. I cannot see RTE surviving infancy these days.
    Still it might be priceless to watch the Scottish party leaders mangle Gaelic.

  2. Anna Notaro Says:

    The title of this post ‘television and Nation building’ is reminiscent of so much scholarly work in my familiar fields of media and cultural studies…that is difficult not to offer a few reflections..
    There is wide consensus among critics that the BBC has contributed over the years towards producing a form of cultural hegemony that conceived “Britishness” within an extremely
    narrow set of conventions, which excluded several (often non-white) communities, in the attempt at “making the nation as one man” . However political and social factors like Devolution, the Good Friday agreement and globalization have undermined such notion of “Britishness” as it is not uncommon for people to have have multiple identities: Welsh Europeans, Glaswegian Muslims etc.. In the world of television this has resulted in a movement away from“broadcasting” to “narrowcasting”, mainly brought about by new cable and satellite channels which are gradually breaking down the very notion of a “unilateral” or “unilingual” voice, thus providing a new “common culture” for those viewers who do not fit
    within a clear cut definition of British citizenship/identity.
    Interestingly, the technological changes that have recently taken place in broadcasting and the advent of new social media have not signalled the end of television (as some had hastily predicted) rather they reflect a world in which the cultural and ideological certainties of the past can no longer be maintained as they once were. As far as Scotland is concerned, a compelling national conversation, as you call it, would be certainly welcome, however any ‘Scottish broadcasting service’ should be careful not to replace the BBC construction of Britishness with an idealized version of a ‘common Scottish culture’.
    Scotland is one of the several resurgent nations seeking to position themselves in the new global space (a process called “globalization of nationalism” ), cable, satellite, digital television and the internet will all have a crucial role to play in the reproduction, reconstruction, and redefinition of these communities. What is required is a complex multichannel system that better reflects the multicultural society Scotland is today rather than to create an organic, Gaelic television idyll.
    Approriately enough, it was Raymond Williams (one of the fathers of Cultural Studies ) who wrote in 1971 “If there is one thing certain about the ‘organic community,’ it is that it has
    always gone” .

  3. iainmacl Says:

    yup…welcome to the decades long argument for scottish broadcasting….no powers for such in the parliament and nothing more Brit-nationalist than the BBC….as for ITV – even worse in the southern part of the country was carved off to a fake border zone of northern England. The pro-British establishment did everything in their power to prevent a devolved (scottish) national broadcasting platform for exactly the reasons you link it to a ‘national conversation’!

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