Speech and Prejudice

28 January 2013

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The BBC’s World Service: it allows ethnic accents; why not the UK Beeb?

Am I prejudiced? Probably; most of us are. Some of us try to cut down a little, a bit like saying “make me chaste Lord, but not yet”. Sometimes though, my subconscious prejudice alerts me to a wider, more insidious bias. This morning I heard the sveldt new voice of BBC News science, from the larynx of one Jason Palmer. I don’t care for his tone; it’s smooth, glutinous and sexy – not what I want from a science correspondent (his predecessor, Pallab Ghosh, had an adenoidal midlands twang that didn’t grab me either.) But his delivery is faultless.

No, the point about Mr Palmer’s vocal signature is that it hails from the American continent. Not the south American continent; quite assuredly, his accent is from north of the Mexican border. Sure, it’s a nice accent, easy on the ear. But it is not ethnic. And neither, despite his name, was Pallab Ghosh’s. What I am driving at is that broadcasters fail to reflect the diversity of their domestic audiences, by always addressing them in the patrician tones of the anglo-saxon diaspora.

The BBC World Service has plenty of journalists, presenters and contributors with strong dulcet tones from around the globe. But when the same BBC (now sharing the same office in central London) broadcasts to its domestic audience, these voices are not heard. The clear dialect of India is nowhere to be heard except in emergency reports on breaking stories. The far eastern lilt of Asian speech is not heard either. But for some reason, thick north American and Australian tones, from western best-friend nations, are acceptable.

A former BBC CEO Greg Dyke famously noted on his first day at work how the place was “hideously white”, and vowed to turn things around. In speech terms at least, he failed.

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3 Responses to “Speech and Prejudice”

  1. Jason Says:

    Thanks, Bruce! Absolutely the first time I’ve heard my voice described as “glutinous”.

  2. Mel B Says:

    Jason isn’t the ‘new voice’ of BBC Science News – he has been doing radio for a few years now and I for one welcome having a North American twang. Surely having any variety is something to welcome – after all its probably not that long ago that an American accent wouldn’t have been heard at all on the BBC in UK broadcast? Hopefully it is a sign that the diversity will spread and a wider range of accents will make themselves heard.

  3. brucewhitehead Says:

    Jason, I’m glad you’re not in the huff. Mel B; I think we agree; more accents good; less diversity bad. And you’re right about US accents being little heard on BBC national networks. But my point remains: only accents from western nations make it on air, despite British audiences being full of people from the nations it formerly colonised. That’s my beef. I’ll give you another example; there’s a West Indian continuity announcer on Radio 4. I dunno what colour he is, but his baritone sounds like honey. He’s finally creeping into the schedules, not on prime time, but sometimes. And his accent? Cut glass English public school with RP (received pronunciation)


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