Updated: Sep 1
What a fascinating debate sparked by the former head of the CBI Lord Jones last week. He took issue with a BBC presenter's accent, aiming his fury at sport presenter Alex Scott, who tends not to pronounce her ings with a g sound. The dig from Digby (sorry) led to a chorus of support for Scott from the likes of Stephen Fry no less. Not just support for Alex Scott though, but for people from regions where their accent leads to pronunciations perceived as incorrect. It got me thinking about what incorrect actually is, but also about the drive for more diversity in the media and particularly my industry radio.
We want to attract people from different backgrounds, not just cultural, but from different class backgrounds and upbringings. Doing this will make newsrooms richer and allow opinions and views to be heard that often get ignored or squeezed from the mainstream. Seeing stories with an alternative perspective will make us all better journalists. Too often I have worked with people who think the same and judge the world through a very narrow middle-class lens (I count myself among those people by the way).
For this to happen though, the industry has to accept that changes will happen on-air. If you are not brought up to speak 'received pronunciation' then you will say words in a way that some people may call 'incorrect'. It brings us back to Lord Jones's pop at Alex Scott. The Home Secretary Priti Patel and the Sky News Political Correspondent Beth Rigby have the same trait. Do I find this difficult to listen to? The honest answer is yes. If a newsreader says 'anythink' instead of 'anything' I would 'correct' them. 'Speaking properly' is seen as key in radio and some argue there are standards to reach if you are a broadcaster. But who judges what those standards are?
Research shows that people with certain accents are perceived by others to be less intelligent. A recent study by the University of Essex found voices with working-class backgrounds were also judged to be less friendly and trustworthy by middle-class peers, while ethnic minority voices were also deemed to be less intelligent. Surely the way to change these perceptions is to increase the diversity of voices we hear. But how many people running newsrooms will be happy if a newsreader doesn't say ings with a g or says TH with an F sound? More importantly will listeners also accept this?
I often ask my news team whether someone with an eastern European accent would be acceptable reading the news. A thoughtful silence normally follows. "Not sure the listener is quite ready for that" is often the conclusion. Back in 2006 the arrival of Neil Nunes on Radio 4 provoked debate amongst its audience, with his rich Jamaican accent causing consternation. A few years later and the fuss was gone - people were used to it (it really helped that he has a lovely voice to be honest).
That debate was 15 years ago but the challenges faced when introducing different voices is the same. We are certainly more used to hearing regional accents on radio than we were then, but the tolerance of managers and listeners appears to me just as lacking. What that leads to is a shaping of people to fit what we want. You may grow up in London but once you are in the 'system' (university, media courses) you will get told how to speak 'correctly' and lose your natural voice or accent.
Take the word 'says'. A simple word and in radio it is used a lot. But some people prounounce it 'say-z', almost adding an extra syllable. I know a radio group that told its newsreaders to spell the word 'sez' in order to get it 'right'. But is that wrong or just different? If we really want to have a diverse media, then we must be prepared for people saying words differently. Much of the media likes to look diverse, but does it want to sound it too? We can debate the merits of Alex Scott as a presenter (and I personally feel she will get better and better) but do not judge her by the way she says certain words. We should embrace difference and challenge perceived norms. Then we will move towards a truly diverse media in sound and look.