For me, one of the delights of producing this blog is uncertainty. I don’t know from one week to the next what I’ll be writing about. I know what my post in forty weeks’ time will concern, but apart from today’s effort, nothing in between. This is deliberate. It means that I have enormous flexibility. So today, dear reader, you shall have, lovingly written, my thoughts presented in an article about an article about an article.
Yesterday – or, if you’re not reading this on the day of publication, on 29th November – while browsing the website of The Times, as is my habit of a morning, I came across the headline: “‘Posh Ed’ seeks truce in BBC accent war”.
The import of the article is that the Broadcaster Ed Stourton has written a piece for The Radio Times, in which he calls for an and to the often heated debate on accents in broadcasting. In September, is BBC colleague, Amol Rajan, who speaks with a south London accent, demanded of the corporation’s Director General, Tim Davie, whether somebody with a strong, regional, working-class accent would be given a presenting job on a main network. This followed research which suggested that 70 per cent of newsreaders speak with Received Pronunciation, whereas the same is true for only 3 per cent of the population. Davie’s reply was simple and unequivocal. “Of course.”
The well-spoken Stourton, who claims that his accent used to be “way posher than the late Queen’s”, argues that a broadcaster’s clarity and authority are both more important than his or her accent. He is absolutely right.
A number of broadcasters, present and past, have, or have had, regional accents. During the second world war, when BBC announcers (never “newsreaders” or “presenters”) were still required to wear dinner jackets while on air, listeners would often have heard the Yorkshiremen , JB Priestley and Wilfred Pickles. Between 1946 and 1980, cricket lovers were treated to commentaries by arguably the greatest commentator of them all, John Arlott, who was as well-known for his Basingstoke burr as for his poetic descriptions of play. Derek Jameson, a man who never lost, or even trie to lose, his East End accent, was often heard on radio and television when I was growing up. Today, nobody minds the different accents of Huw Edwards, John Humphrys, Ken Bruce, Sara Cox, Kirsty Wark, Lauren Laverne, Adrian Chiles, and a whole host of others.
Politics is another profession which requires clarity and authority from speakers, regardless of accent. Although a good many people might repudiate their politics, no-one denies that the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon (from Glasgow) and Labour’s Angela Rayner (from Manchester) are both very effective communicators.
By contrast, the late trade unionist, Jimmy Knapp, was very difficult to understand. This was not because of his broad, Ayrshire accent, but his failure to enunciate clearly. His strange mumblings and hawkings, were actually statements on behalf of one or other of his unions, or answers to journalists’ questions. For those who are curious, Knapp was General Secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen, before it merged with the National Union of Seamen to form the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, which he served in the same capacity. He was also President of the Trades Union Congress.
Whilst I see no reason why a person with any accent shouldn’t become a broadcaster or politician, I fail to see any merit in Amol Rajan’s decision to pick this rather specious fight. Perhaps it is envy? Perhaps it is insecurity? Or perhaps Received Pronunciation is displeasing to Rajan’s ears? Only he knows.
Of course, this is nothing new. When I was a child, I received my primary education near Birmingham, and was, therefore, surrounded by children from Birmingham and the Black Country, who mocked me for “talkin’ posh”. I don’t recall any interventions on my behalf from any teachers. However, I do remember getting into trouble for telling one of my schoolmates that the whole number between two and four should be pronounced “three”, not “free”. To be fair, I probably shouldn’t have cast doubt on his intellectual prowess, but still, he was wrong, so it seemed reasonable to my five-year-old self, that I should correct him.
“You have to realise that not everybody talks like you do,” I was told. How very true. But they, my schoolfellows and my teachers, should have had to realise it too.
I don’t know whether or not the companion of my youth learnt to pronounce his THs properly. Does it really matter? No. If he still can’t, should it, along with his Birmingham accent prevent him from having, should he wish it, a career in broadcasting? Of course not.
But to briefly broaden the point, “posh bashing”, for want of a better term, is a truly disagreeable habit. It is as unacceptable to complain that people sound too posh as it is to complain of their regional accent. It is as unacceptable for one person to criticise another for being rich or privately educated, as it is to criticise someone for being poor, or for having gone to a state school.
Diversity is, of course, a laudable thing. However, so is merit. Broadcasters should be judged by their voices, and the clarity of their speech, not by their accents, or their gender, or their ethnicity, or indeed, where they went to school or university. If the BBC and other broadcasters keep employing the best available people, Mr Rajan will eventually see that the question he put to Tim Davie is fantastically irrelevant.
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