I had started to think that someone in the BBC hierarchy had issued an edict that the Syrian president’s name should be pronounced by all journalists in accordance with the Pronunciation Unit’s recommendation, with stress on the first syllable of his family name: ASSad. This was because I was hearing not only Jeremy Bowen (Middle East Editor) and Lyse Doucet (Chief International Correspondent), who have both spent a lot of time in the Middle East, and clearly know the subject inside out, pronouncing it this way – as they have been doing for as long as I can remember, but also Jon Sopel (North America Editor), who will be constantly hearing other pronunciations (including the strange ‘aSHAAD’ from the Trump administration yesterday) from Americans around him, and John Humphrys, who seems to have come round to it in recent days. However, my hope seems to have been misplaced: Sophie Raworth, presenting the 10 o’clock news last night, and Sarah Montague and Nick Robinson on the Today programme on Radio 4 this morning, after a single occurrence of ASSad, reverted to type with multiple pronunciations with stress on the second syllable, even when immediately following a speaker who managed to get it right.
The fault doesn’t only lie with the people we hear on radio and television, but must be traced back to their editors who cannot distinguish between the needs of written and spoken journalism. All written media outlets have a style guide which, among other things, specifies which spellings of contentious names will be used in their publications. One of the most notorious was Qaddafi (or was that Ghaddafi, Gaddafy, or something else?) Surely it behoves the editors of the spoken media to maintain the same standards in speech? The BBC does have a style guide, but does the most recent version of it even mention pronunciation? I’m not talking about standardising pronunciation to the extent of demanding a single accent from its speakers, but that names be standardised in order not to confuse the audience. Why shouldn’t editors and producers be under the same cosh as Radio 4 (and Radio 2, Radio 3 and World Service) newsreaders that they WILL follow the recommendations of the Pronunciation Unit? This is a policy decision made by what was then called the Board of Management of the BBC; it was published and I have never seen an official amendment to it. If there has been one, I should be very pleased to see it.