It’s been very noticeable over the past week or so that almost all BBC broadcasters, from whatever department, are now saying ‘bay-jing’ for the Chinese capital. It’s been confirmed today by “a BBC employee” that a directive has been sent out by senior management that everyone must toe this line.
At least this is telling people to do the right thing. The last time such a thing happened it was over Althorp.
There ought not to be any need for directives of this nature to be sent out. In 1974, the then BBC Board of Management (affectionately known as BoM, to be contrasted with BoG – Board of Governors) issued a booklet called BBC Pronunciation Policy and Practice, which laid down that all BBC staff newsreaders and presenters must follow the recommendations of the Pronunciation Unit, and it advised all other broadcasters to take heed of the Unit’s advice. Whether the intention was to mean all staff newsreaders, and only staff presenters, or all staff newsreaders and all presenters (good linguists should recognise the “old men and women” example from the 1960s here), we cannot know, but a similar instruction now would do no harm whatsoever. When Althorp was targeted in this way, the newsreaders were clearly made afraid for their jobs if they disobeyed it – despite the instruction being against the rules according to the 1974 decision. The distinction between staff and contract or freelance is lost on the public, who do not know that John Humphrys is on a personal contract, while Harriet Cass is a member of staff, so the freedom of the one, and the constraints put on the other, simply confuse listeners and viewers.
The problem as I see it is that the Pronunciation Unit is managed as part of the library service, which is considered as a peripheral part of the Corporation. When it was set up, it was a part of Presentation, so that the line manager was the Chief Announcer (in the 1940s, John Snagge). When I joined the Corporation, it had already been transferred to the libraries, but I was high enough up the managerial ladder that my immediate line manager reported to The Secretary, who was a member of BoM. By the time I left, the head of my department was not even a librarian, but more used to managing plumbers and decorators, and I did not even report to him. My view is that the Unit should be transferred to Editorial Policy, where it would be at the centre of the Corporation’s operation. As language is at the heart of all broadcasting, whether news or anything else, and the BBC prides itself on its accuracy – English by Radio, BBC English as it calls itself now, has taught many millions of people how to use our language – it would make a great deal of sense for the Pronunciation Unit to have access to the “top table” as it were. I suspect that it will never happen – a former Controller of Editorial Policy referred to pronunciation as a “can of worms” that he wanted nothing to do with, although all he would need to do would be to accept the recommendations of the Unit – all its members are very good linguists, and spend their lives researching the pronunciations which journalists often dismiss in two seconds flat.
Perhaps a start could be made by standardising the French President’s name: there is still a lot of disagreement between the second-syllable and third-syllable stressers.