Robin Aitken

More northern accents won’t save the BBC

More northern accents won’t save the BBC
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It seems that the BBC has finally acknowledged the truth of George Bernard Shaw’s aphorism. Demonstrating his inherent anti-Englishness, the old Fabian snob declared: 

‘It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.’ 

And the barb hurts because to an extent we must accept that it is partly true. 

In our defence, it is also true of people other than the English. Every European country, and probably every country in the world (including Shaw’s Ireland) has its own bumpkin regional twang which the boss class looks down on. Universality doesn’t make this discrimination right – but the way a person speaks is an instant indicator of origins, education and class.

But it seems a penny has dropped at the BBC – an organisation which is getting fretful about the possibility that it is unloved in some parts of the country. In a belated acknowledgement by the Corporation that many see it as elitist and unsympathetic, the BBC has announced a change in which the good people of Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, the north east and the north west will no longer be subjected to ‘Received Pronunciation’ announcers on the telly. Instead they will have people who speak like they do, supposedly.

How does this ‘Across the UK initiative’ (there’s the BBC speak for you) strike you? Do you think ‘at last! The BBC understands my needs: regional accents are the root cause of my disaffection’, or do you think that this looks like a rather shallow, even slightly patronising, cosmetic change designed to bring the provincials back on side? As someone not yet convinced that the BBC is determined to reform itself, I favour the latter explanation. Because, in truth, sticking a few more regional accents in front of a microphone, while no bad thing in itself, doesn’t begin to address the real problems the BBC faces. And anyway regional accents aren’t new; in the 1980s the BBC’s political editor John Cole delivered his insights in an authentic Belfast rasp.

The man who announced this change, Mr Rhodri Talfan Davies, is in charge of ‘Across the UK’; he is ‘spearheading’ its implementation – suggesting it will be an urgent and energetic transformation. You think? A sceptical interviewer at the Royal Television Society industry love-in at which he unveiled his plan asked Talfan Davies if some people might see it as ‘condescending and superficial’ to start deploying regional voices and he agreed this would be the case if not for the fact that the BBC has a ‘pipeline of exciting creative projects rooted in England’.

So in addition to improvements in dialectological diversity the people of the north east are, he hinted, going to be given their very own soap opera. This will be made using the money saved by scrapping Holby City. This at least is a move to be wholeheartedly welcomed; running an eye down the listings and seeing Holby is a reminder of how pitifully unambitious BBC scheduling has become. So one cheer for a new Geordie soap opera – let’s just hope it’s not as miserablist, squalid and depressing as EastEnders; the cheerful and resilient people of the north east deserve better. Perhaps the male lead could be a patriotic, Christian, Brexit-favouring Geordie man with a happy marriage? Now that would be radical.

So far so normal; rearranging the announcers’ rota, fiddling about with the sets, starting new programmes – all in a day’s work for a busy BBC spearheader, I’m sure. But in truth the BBC’s problems with its audience go much deeper. Mr Talfan Davies was gently pressed on the issue. Would Lord Reith, he was asked, approve of today’s BBC programmes? Davies remarked, sagely, that ‘tastes have changed’ (and how!) since that stern Presbyterian went to his maker. But he went on to assure his audience that ‘I think he’d recognise the integrity of the organisation and the trust that audiences have in the BBC.’

Mmmm. I wonder. I rather think Lord Reith would hardly recognise the institution he formed; he would surely have been shocked, beyond measure, by the Martin Bashir scandal and the dishonest and dishonourable way it was covered up . He would also, one feels sure, be horrified by the BBC’s promotion of promiscuity and hostility to the Christian religion. And he would surely be worried about the way the Corporation pays lip-service to the doctrine of impartiality, now honoured only in the breach.

Perhaps those people whose faith in the BBC has been shaken, not by its preference for spoken, educated English but by the repeated scandals and the Corporation’s naked partisanship on issues like Brexit, will need more than a few local voices on their TV to restore their trust. It’s not really about accents. Within the walls of Broadcasting House a political monoculture rules; the BBC needs proper diversity in its workforce – people who reject ‘wokeness’ and think for themselves. Now that would be an initiative worth spearheading.

Written byRobin Aitken

Robin Aitken is a former BBC journalist and author of 'The Noble Liar: How and Why the BBC Distorts the News to Promote a Liberal Agenda'. He is also co-founder of the Oxford Foodbank.

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