Brendan O’Neill

Alex Scott, Digby Jones and the snobbery of low expectations

Alex Scott, Digby Jones and the snobbery of low expectations
(Photos by Graeme Roberston/Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)
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Labour peer Lord Digby Jones has found himself in the eye of a Twitterstorm. His error? He criticised BBC sports presenter Alex Scott for mispronouncing certain words on the Beeb’s daily Olympics show. Specifically, words ending in G. Scott is a G-dropper, he complained. She says ‘fencin, rowin, boxin, weighliftin and swimmin’, he said, and he can’t stand it anymore. ‘Enough!’, he cried.

Twitter users, as is their wont, went crazy. What a vile elitist, they said. Stephen Fry accused Jones of ‘misplaced snobbery’ and branded him a ‘disgrace [to] the upper house’ (the Lords is famed for being a snob-free zone, of course). Footballer turned pundit Gary Neville took the mick out of Jones’s name. ‘Lord Digby Jones! Just say that name to yourself a few times…! I’m actually starting to see how revolutions occurred!’ Dust down the guillotine — Neville’s ready for action.

Alex Scott herself took to Twitter to express pride in the way she speaks. ‘I’m from a working-class family in east London, Poplar, Tower Hamlets and I am PROUD’, she said: ‘Proud of the young girl who overcame obstacles, and proud of my accent! It’s me, it’s my journey, my grit.’ On yesterday’s BBC Olympics show she seemed to drop her Gs even more ostentatiously than before, no doubt as a swipe at Jones. Which is funny. Fair play.

I’m torn on this discussion. Like Scott, I’m from a working-class family in London, though north-west rather than east. And I detest snobbery, which is rife in modern Britain. Who can forget the five-year orgy of class hatred that followed the vote for Brexit in 2016, when commentators, politicos and plummy activists daubed in blue paint raged against thick northerners and brainwashed tabloid-readers for voting Leave?

It’s an irony not lost on me, at any rate, that many of the same people currently fuming about Digby Jones will have supported that painfully snobbish effort to trash the largest vote in UK history. Yes, Sadiq Khan, we’re looking at you — you offered your ‘Sarf London’ (cringe) solidarity to Ms Scott, yet you spent much of the past five years trying to overturn millions of working-class people’s votes.

Yet at the same time, I think Digby Jones has a point. Leaving the G off the end of words like rowing, swimming, boxing etc is mispronunciation. It’s incorrect English. This isn’t about accent or class. It’s about speaking clearly and universally. That is something we should encourage, no? Especially on the BBC. No, we shouldn’t go back to the days when every Beeb presenter sounded like Mr Cholmondley Warner and the only time you ever heard a regional accent on the box was when Ena Sharples was moaning in a corner of the Rover’s Return about young people’s loose morals. A variety of accents on TV is a very good thing. But everyone should aspire to speak clearly in order to connect with as broad an audience as possible.

I think the true snobbery in this strange spat comes not from Digby Jones, but from Stephen Fry. He is the privately educated possessor of one of the poshest, clearest, most mellifluous speaking voices in the British media. And yet there he is essentially saying to Alex Scott — and, by extension, other working-class folk in the media — ‘Carry on speaking as you do. It’s fabulous'. Isn’t this the snobbery of low expectations? It smacks of saying that these working-class people can’t help how they talk — it’s part of their cultcha, innit?

Is it, though? I remember getting clips round the ear for bad pronunciation. Partly this was because my parents are Irish and they couldn’t bear to hear their children saying super-English things like ‘innit’, ‘nah’ and ‘uvver’ instead of ‘other’. But at school, too, teachers would reprimand us for slack speech. None of us could afford elocution lessons, or even knew that such things existed, but there was nonetheless an expectation that just as we should write clearly, so we should speak clearly too. You said ‘yeh’ instead of ‘yes’ to one of the nuns at my school at your peril. Has this aspiration to clear speech — whatever your class — really been lost?

One of the things that irritates me most about public life today is the preponderance of slack speech. It’s mostly coming from the middle classes, as it happens. The media and popular culture are both full of well-brought-up people embracing the glottal stop to try to appear more ‘urban’ or ‘authentic’. I'm sure to the ears of Radio 4 commissioning editors and magazine feature writers that it all sounds very exotic and authentic, but, believe me, to those of us who come from the working classes it just sounds naff. Like when a posh kid wins the part of Dodger in Oliver! and goes around saying: ‘Wot yer starin’ at? Ain’t yer evah seen a gent?’

Indeed, it isn’t the likes of Digby Jones, with his apparently outrageous preference for clear pronunciation, who threatens to obliterate accent diversity in the UK. It’s this media-driven promotion of phoney Thames estuary speak. Researchers from Cambridge and Portsmouth universities recently proposed that northern and other accents could be ‘wiped out’ in a couple of generations by the unstoppable march of the apparently cool T-dropping, G-discarding slack speech of the south-east that is now as dominant in the media as RP English once was.

So, we have middle-class people slumming down their speech, and working-class people being congratulated for mispronouncing certain words. What a mess. Alex Scott is a very admirable young woman. She achieved great things in women’s football, captaining the England team, and is now a warm, engaging sports presenter. It isn’t snobbish, however, to pull her up on her G-dropping. Everyone should speak clearly, wherever they come from, and whatever accent they have.

Written byBrendan O’Neill

Brendan O’Neill is the editor of Spiked, the online magazine.

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