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Open Letter re See Hear in Broadcast Now

See-Hear-Terry-Riley-blog.jpgBlogcast at Broadcast Now is carrying an open letter from Rebecca Atkinson regarding BBC See Hear.

Since this is read by many people in the media, people are being urged to go over there and comment.

See Hear originally came about due to campaigning from Deaf activists at the National Union of the Deaf, including Paddy Ladd and Raymond Lee. NUD campaigned and called for BSL on television, so Deaf people could have a programme that they could access. A move to a mid week slot, suddenly sidelines BSL output, and a programme aimed at being accessible to a hearing audience to satisfy viewing figures.

The BBC should never be about viewing figures, and the whole point of public funding is that it can produce programmes away from popular culture. If you want that, go work for ITV.

See also:
Save See Hear

Are you listening?

Would it be OK to broadcast Welsh language programmes without the Welsh? Just scrap the Cymraeg and stick 'em out in English instead? No it wouldn't, says Rebecca Atkinson, but this is what is effectively happening to the corporation's programme for deaf people, See Hear.

Make a minority programme more appealing to the majority and you'll get what every TV exec wants - bigger viewing figures. Never mind if your core audience start reaching for their TV 'off' button in the process, after all, what do they know? They're just the minority.

Seem illogical? Unfathomable? Damn right offensive? It is. Yet this is what is currently happening to the BBC2 flagship programme for deaf people, See Hear.

See Hear is now in its 26th year and delivers much needed programming in British sign language (BSL) to the approximate 50,000 licence fee payers who use BSL as their first and preferred language. Whilst there are approximately 8 million deaf and hard of hearing people in the UK, (a figure which includes the full spectrum of medical deafness, from your deafened granddad to someone born profoundly deaf), it is the 50,000 sign language users who make up a cohesive community and consider themselves not just merely medically deaf, but part of a cultural and linguistic minority. It is this minority, for whom programming output delivered in their first language, British sign language, is paramount.

Not only does See Hear deliver much needed information in an accessible format, but it is the only programme on terrestrial television reflecting the issues and views of this sizable minority, many of whom have poor English language skills meaning access to information through subtitles alone is insufficient.

Ten years ago See Hear was criticised by the deaf community for being produced by a predominantly hearing staff with little or no knowledge of BSL or deaf culture. The upshot was the portrayal of deaf lives through a hearing and paternalistic lens - all too often focusing on the medical aspect of deafness (eg. the best hearing aids to buy and how to teach your child to speak) rather than reflecting the genuine views, interests and concerns of the linguistic and cultural deaf minority. In recent years however, since the appointment of the programme's first deaf editor Terry Riley (pictured) in 2002, the programme has regrounded itself as the mouth piece of the signing deaf community.

But just when the BBC finally gets things right by providing a deaf- led programme for the deaf community in their language, they do a U- turn and along comes the appointment of a new hearing executive producer to lead a programme made for a community she appears to have little or no knowledge of, in a language she can't speak/sign. The new management has an apparent indifference to the distinction between Deaf and deaf - the former denoting an identity within a cultural group, rather than the medical aggregate which constitutes the later. The result? A retrogressive leap in an attempt to make the programme more appealing to hearing and hard of hearing viewers and subsequently raise the kind of low viewing figures you'd expect from a programme aimed at a minority. Back are the patronising "life line" type appeals of yore.

Back are the items of little or no interest to signing deaf people but of some vague 'there but for the grace of God go I' interest to hearing folk. Never more so has the hearing lens been back in focus than with recent programmes including items about hearing people owning deaf dogs and the grief of a hearing couple at the diagnosis of their child's deafness. But perhaps most farcical of all has been the decision to put out several recent programmes favouring spoken and subtitled English over full BSL access.

Within the BBC See Hear has long been viewed as technically clumsy. The need to have in-vision signing has led to the programme defying standard TV making practice and when uninformed hearing people watch it they can't understand why. Whilst mainstream programmes rely on audio voiceover to streamline visual edits (ie. when an interviewee is talking and the picture cuts away to a shot of their hands whilst the voice over continues), See Hear has had to avoid such techniques in order to ensure sign language remains in-vision at all time resulting in a slower moving programme, fully accessible to the sign language using viewer, but appearing oddly clunky to the hearing viewer used to a more streamline televisual experience.

Recent See Hear programmes, including specials about the Miss Deaf UK contest and the adoption of deaf children appear to have succumbed to the 'hearingisation' of the programme by adopting the standard TV practices of aural narratives supplemented with subtitles and no BSL translation. This may make for more comfortable viewing for the hearing majority - no silly hand waving presenter or interpreter super-imposed into the corner. It may indeed get the much coverted viewing figures but at what expense? The alienation of the programme's core audience.

For the country's only programme for the deaf community, made by the country's only public service broadcaster, to broadcast without full BSL access is a farcical disgrace. What's the point in having programmes for minority groups if they are put out in the language of the majority - which the minority themselves cannot access?

Moreover, the series, widely considered the last bastion of true public service broadcasting, has recently been cut from 45 minutes weekly to 30 minutes and is planned for a schedule relocation, (under the ill-conceived illusion that deaf people don't go out to work, from Saturday mornings to Wednesday daytimes from September); something the deaf community strongly oppose. In addition, new hearing implemented programme policy rumours to include plans to use deaf presenters who cannot sign (rather like putting out an Asian language programme with an Eastern European presenter talking in Slovak - they're both foreign languages but they don't belong under the same umbrella) and a mission to raise viewing figures to 8 million - a figure only achievable by making the programme appeal to the majority hearing audience by alienating the very people who need the programme the most - the sign language using deaf licence payers who don't have access to the rest of the BBC's output in their own language.

Not only has the BBC entrusted the policy of the UK's flagship programme for deaf viewers with an hearing executive producer inexperienced in deaf culture, but director general, Mark Thompson has failed to realise a promise he made publicly last year at See Hear's 25th birthday party, to ensure funding for BBC2 deaf soap opera, Switch to continue into it's forth series. Additionally, BBC Online continues to carry stories in which they use the dated and derogatory terms 'deaf mute' and 'deaf and dumb'. You'd never see the term 'nigger' or 'poof' used in a BBC news story, yet these belittling and incorrect terms continue to fall through the net and onto the page.

The BBC is supposedly committed to increasing disabled representation on TV but is making illogical cuts and changes like this, seemingly because channel commissioners are obsessed with viewing figures rather then pleasing and truthfully representing the audience (however small) a programme was intended for. deaf people pay a full licence fee (blind people get a 50% discount) yet for BSL using deaf viewers See Hear is the only programme made for, and about them, in their first language.

It is time the BBC was held accountable for the institutional disrespect with which they treat the deaf community. It is not OK to continue referring to deaf people as 'deaf mutes' and 'deaf and dumb' on their online content. It is not OK for the director general to promise funding for the continuation of Europe's only deaf soap opera, Switch, only to break that promise. It is not OK for the BBC to move See Hear from its weekend slot to weekday in a bid to raise viewing figures. It is not OK to represent the lives of deaf people through a prism of hearing experience. It is not OK to put out programming intended for BSL users but to omit BSL translation and rely on spoken voice over and subtitles. Lastly it is not OK, in 2007, some 11 years after the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act for the BBC to repeatedly ignore the wishes of the minority in favour of the majority.

Comments (5)

Sounds like they are just looking to make some money, nevermind who they are supposed to be serving.


The BBC is publically funded, and not via adverts (as with other television channels). Instead everyone who owns a television in the UK is obliged to pay a licence fee (which could be described as a form of taxation). This funding is used to finance the BBC.

Now the BBC fails to provide for one group of the population, and actually goes against Ofcom's proposals, in the consultation that's happening (see two posts above). Apparently Deaf people want dedicated programmes.

If the BBC is going to be awkward and no consultation happening, then perhaps we should start being awkward with them. Anyone for full time BSL interpretation for the radio? They could easily stream it over the internet. How about suing the BBC for lack of BSL on their website, under the DDA?

Suing wouldn't work, they aren't held by the same law to provide BSL on their website as they are to provide a minimal amount of BSL access on televised media.

There seems to be this misconception that because people pay a TV Licence that they are entitled to order the BBC about.

The BBC whilst a broacasting corperation is strongly contolled by the goverment. The have in essence said, if you want this service your going to have to pay for it, don'tpay for it, you don't get it.

Even when people move over to freeview and digital you still need to pay a licence, and thats n top of other viewing fees.

No word of a lie there is a lack of access across the board, but the same rules don't apply online as they do for television.

No website is obliged to provide BSL under the DDA on their website.

BBC must comply with the DED, as a public body. What is it actually doing to ensure that Deaf people are included in consultation? Or is it a case of institutional discrimination?

BBC has to comply with the DDA too, and its website is covered by the DDA. One of those adjustments could be BSL output. Its a large body, with millions in resources, and its perfectly reasonable to expect it. The BBC's own lawyers have already recognised website compliance with the DDA as an issue.

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