An open letter to the BBC suggests that it needs a Language Advisor, not (according to the interview Ian Bruton-Simmonds, one of the authors, gave to the Today programme this morning) to shame broadcasters publicly about their poor English, but to have a quiet word with them, so that they don’t do it again.
In the 1980s the BBC did have a post called Speech Adviser (note the difference in spelling!) who was an experienced radio announcer. The first holder of this post was Roy Williamson, who had been a Radio 3 announcer before being seconded to the Radio Training Department. He had been preceded in the same post (but with a different title) by Bryan Martin, of Radio 4. It was their task to train would-be broadcasters in the art of speaking at the microphone. I do not know if Roy still has a successor today.
At the same time, I held the post of Pronunciation Adviser, with the task of recommending the most suitable pronunciation of words or names for use on the air. It was also part of my remit to suggest to errant broadcasters that they should come into line with the recommendation. This sort of comment was received better by some than by others, as can be imagined.
The volume of language put out by the BBC these days would require a small army of language advisers if they were to do the job properly, and I’m sure that Ian Bruton-Simmonds would be helping man the barricades if his licence fee went up to pay for them all.
Surely the best way to ensure high standards in language use is to employ journalists and others who can already produce a high standard of language, and who share the old BBC ethos of accuracy and courtesy to the listener. Twenty years ago, one of my colleagues was asked in the television newsroom which was correct: peninsula, or peninsular. The enquirer was a graduate but thought my colleague was being facetious when she asked for the context: was it to be used as a noun or an adjective?
A senior Editor in News recently told me that he didn’t think pronunciation was important, so long as he got his message across. Twenty years ago, the Duty Editor would have told him to go and re-record it, or it would not go out. Pronunciation does not matter in print journalism, but in broadcasting it is in some ways even more important than grammatical accuracy – the intonation used can disambiguate what would look confusing on the page.
To return to Mr Bruton-Simmonds, the way he spoke when he was being interviewed by Sarah Montagu was stilted, deliberate, and totally unsuited to the broadcast medium. If that is the way he wants our presenters and reporters to speak, then the BBC will do well to ignore him, as, in the present climate of cuts, they are sure to do in any case.