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Monday, September 21, 2020
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BBC should put the accent on ability

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BBC presenter Steph McGovern claims that the corporation needs more working-class employees to give us increased ‘diversity’. McGovern claims that there are plenty of people who earn far more than she does at the BBC simply because they are ‘posh’, while she is working-class. So to deal with this, she wants to see more presenters with regional accents.

I’m no accent snob. Mine still reflects my North London council estate and comprehensive school upbringing. My wife and my colleagues frequently compare me to Dick Van Dyke’s chimney sweep in Mary Poppins or various members of the cast of EastEnders. But I can’t agree with McGovern. I think her claim seems a little bizarre. I’m not aware of any shortage of regional accents on the BBC. One or two even seem exaggerated to give their owner a little more ‘authenticity’.

I hope the BBC would discriminate in favour of clarity and good English whatever the speaker’s origins but I’m not sure that they do. Not that these aren’t things that people of any class can’t either have or acquire. And if we were going to start positively discriminating for class as McGovern seems to want, how would we would determine who was suitably working-class anyway? What’s the cut-off? What if you change? Coming from a deprived background is not something that has to be visibly stamped on you for life.

Even if you accept the questionable claim that there aren’t many working-class or regional voices on television and radio, how patronising is it to think that people can only cope with, or want to hear, voices that sound like their own? Or how much do you believe that working-class people with the right qualities have been unable to succeed in the media? And if we do insist that a particular subset of the population needs more representation, where do we stop? How far do we have to break down society into different parts, each of which needs to be promoted or defended?

No one wants to go back to the 1930s when Lord Reith’s radio announcers wore dinner jackets to read the news and had impeccable Received Pronunciation. I’m glad that I can hear different voices on my television or radio and that we are not blandly homogeneous. But let’s not create any more special categories. There is nothing wrong with having working-class origins, but that shouldn’t get you a merit badge either. When I’m agitated, I drop aitches like a barrow boy in My Fair Lady. I don’t think that qualifies me for anything.

I’m not embarrassed by my accent but I’m also not bothered how often or not I might hear it on television or radio. So although privately owned media is free to do what it likes, can we just have good English and ability as the criteria for choosing our presenters when the bill is on us licence-payers?

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Ollie Wright
Ollie Wright
Ollie Wright is an ex-Labour Party man with a life long interest in politics and history.

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