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HOW biased is BBC news and how does this bias work? Last Saturday, Radio 4’s flagship news programme, Today, reported on how it was “time to update a 1950s survey of England’s dialects.” Leeds University is renewing groundbreaking research on regional ways of speaking.
Presenter Nick Robinson gave a a preview of the piece on the dialect survey, then announced: “The BBC news is read, without a dialect, this morning by Jane Steel.”
It was all very jolly. But Robinson showed that although a 1950s survey was being updated, his own 1950s values were not.
This is how the real world works. We all speak with accents – meaning variations in words are pronounced. We also all speak in dialects, meaning variations on English, with different words, expressions and grammatical forms.
BBC newsreaders generally speak in the dialect called “standard English” — sometimes also called “the Queen’s English” — using the accent “received pronunciation.” Oddly enough, the Queen herself uses the Queen’s English for some formal events but speaks in her own unusual “royal” accent (in private, she speaks in a series of clicks and rasps, like all the other space lizards).
Many other people speak with a “regional” accent and various degrees of dialect. For dialect, the phrases “that may be the case,” “maybe so” and “happen so” — have similar meanings, but the first is a piece of “standard English” dialect, reflecting the mix of pomposity and precision barristers use. The second two have the concision and compression typically found in more everyday dialects.
Lots of people can veer back and forward between their own dialect and “standard English,” a practice known as “code switching,” although native speakers of standard English usually don’t have this flexibility or complexity in their language.
The “Queen’s English” is the officially sanctioned dialect, but it is still a dialect. It is not “neutral.” The idea that the English of the middle-class south-east, of Oxford University, the Bar and the BBC was “neutral” and that every other dialect has “deviated” from this is an old-fashioned prejudice.
I had thought that the somewhat imperious, if not imperial, attitude that “these people don’t speak properly, but we do” was dead, but it is apparently still very much alive.
And it points to the BBC bias, where its key people think they are “above the fray” when actually they have taken a side. The BBC’s attitude to regional dialects and accents goes to the heart of how it was formed. The BBC’s belief is that it should fairly represent the varieties of the nation. Many years ago, the corporation looked at a nation with many different dialects and accents and decided that it could not take a side. It must rise above them, in a neutral, “BBC English.”
This belief that this was neutral was wrong. They were actually picking a side, the side of the south-east, high middle-class elite. This has softened over the past 50 years, though generally the BBC allows the accents of the nations of the UK — Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish — into its top team, but not those of the regions.
Presumably, this is because the nations are officially recognised constituents of the UK, whereas regions are just a bit common.
Nick Robinson’s words reveal that the unconscious bias remains. If he believes the way millions of regular people speak is actually a deviation from his “neutral” form of speech, it’s not surprising BBC news folk have other unconscious biases away from the people and to the south-eastern high middle class.
You can feel again and again that the BBC news team genuinely believes that there is a “consensus” of sensible ideas that should be communicated, while ideas outside that consensus should be interrogated fiercely. But the problem is that consensus is not rooted in the nation, it is rooted in their own life, experiences and institutions.
Political journalists whose careers blossomed in the Blair-Cameron years think that shaky technocratic consensus is the “norm” and everything else is a deviation, even though historically this is not especially true. The BBC news team treats “Corbynite” spokespeople like “outsiders,” even though the hundreds of thousands of Labour members and millions of Labour votes show that policies of nationalisation, taxing the rich, higher welfare spending and less wars are not some weird kink.
Journalists who are used to the debates at the Oxford Union, but not the debates in a Unison branch meeting, or who are used to having an accountant for their tax return, but not applying for benefits, who have paid off their mortgage but not lived in social housing, have particular expectations or points of view.
That’s natural. But what is highly constructed is their belief that their experience is the norm, everybody else’s is the deviation. The belief that they speak “neutrally” while everybody else is talking in some kind of defective political dialect is at the heart of a great deal of misreporting. Nick Robinson’s dialect clanger shows that the very obvious bias of BBC news often comes from very simple reflexes about who are and who aren’t “people like us.”
Solomon Hughes writes every Friday for the Morning Star. You can follow him on Twitter on @SolHughesWriter.
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